Tanner bill would stop mid-decade remaps

By Erin P. Billings
Published May 24th 2005 in Roll Call
On the heels of the bitter Texas redistricting battle, a leading conservative House Democrat is going to war over the issue, introducing a bill to prohibit politicians from creating Congressional boundaries and to prevent mid-decade redrawing.

Rep. John Tanner (Tenn.), a leading Blue Dog Democrat who saw several of his Texas colleagues lose in November because of redistricting, will launch his legislation this week. The veteran Member is seeking to create national standards for redistricting that include the creation of nonpartisan commissions in each state to redraw Congressional district lines just once every 10 years.

Tanner said he's bringing his bill forward now because redistricting has become an overly political process, leading to a system that favors the extreme party wings and locks out input from average Americans. Majority parties in individual states can dictate election outcomes and set up a system in which Congressional districts no longer contain diversity - ideological and otherwise, he said.

"Politics has hijacked our democracy," Tanner said in an interview. "It's become an inside ball game - basically, the people be damned."

"This bill will hopefully turn the clock back to the days when Congress truly represented people from every political persuasion and all walks of life," he added.

Tanner acknowledged that the bill faces little chance of passage this Congress, saying: "This leadership in the House will not let it see the light of day. They will probably try to choke it on the front end."

But House Democratic and Republican aides said they are taking a wait-and-see approach to Tanner's legislation.

"Everyone is entitled to introduce a bill," said a GOP leadership source. "We will wait and see until he actually files it instead of prefacing it in the press."

A Democratic leadership aide said: "We haven't looked at it closely, but at first glance, it is certainly an issue we need to address. It's not right to have all these states redistricting in the middle of a decade."

Tanner said he plans to work with Congress, national voter fairness organizations and political leaders and advocacy groups at the state level to build support for reform. He is introducing his legislation at a time when good government groups - and some political leaders - are pushing to reform the redistricting process in California, Florida and Ohio, among other states.

Tanner has also penned a letter to his colleagues seeking support for the legislation.

In it, Tanner lays out the case that Congressional districts are becoming less competitive, and "silencing each district's gerrymandered minority, whether it be Republican or Democrat." He noted that 37 House Members in the last election received 55 percent of the vote or less, and only seven were defeated. Nearly 95 percent of the House remained unchanged from 2002.

David Moon, program director for the non-partisan Fair Vote that promotes competitive elections, said Tanner's bill will ensure Congress "is as much of a reflection of society's political, racial and gender diversity as possible."

"Americans want to see a more healthy political process," Moon said. "This is an opportunity to get something like that done."

Tanner's effort comes as some states continue to re-examine, mid-decade, their district maps and others work to enact state-level reforms aimed at independent redistricting. Georgia just changed its lines this spring, though the new map has not been approved by the Justice Department yet.

Tanner's push also comes after the controversial 2003 Texas redistricting effort in which Republicans, led by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (Texas), put five prominent House Democrats in peril.

Four of those five Members, several of whom were conservative Blue Dogs, lost their re-election bids last year. The leading founder of the Blue Dogs, Rep. Charlie Stenholm (D-Texas), was one of the casualties of the Texas effort.

Tanner said while Texas was certainly a wake-up call, he had been planning to introduce a redistricting fairness bill for some time.

"The thing in Texas was a lightning rod for people to say, 'What has happened to this system of government?'" Tanner said. "What we're witnessing is tyranny."

The measure would require that states establish independent commissions of at least five members to review new census data and come up with one, or several, plans to present to their legislatures for approval. The commission must act within a year to devise a redistricting map that is approved, unamended, by the Legislature and governor.

The courts will step in if the commission fails to act, or if the Legislature and governor cannot agree on a plan.

The commissions would comprise an equal number of members appointed by the minority and majority floor leaders in the two state legislative houses. A majority of those members must appoint an additional member, who would serve as chairman.

Those commissioners must be registered voters for at least four years, but cannot have held elective or appointed office, been an employee of a political campaign or worked for a political party. No member of the commission can run for the House until after the districts are redrawn the next time, or in 10 years.

Tanner said he's simply fed up with redistricting being used for political advantage, and said his measure "is the only way to take our government back." He added that the mid-Census redistricting process "has the most delirious, debilitating effect on the political process in the country than any single thing I can think of."