Tanner redistricting bill gains Senate sponsor

By Josephine Hearn
Published March 1st 2006 in The Hill
Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) will wade into the debate over redistricting tomorrow, introducing a bill to establish a bipartisan process to redraw congressional district lines.

The bill will be identical to House legislation put forward by Rep. John Tanner (D-Tenn.) last year. Tanner's bill has 45 co-sponsors, including Republican Reps. Phil Gingrey (Ga.) and Zach Wamp (Tenn.).

Tanner's bill would direct leaders of state legislatures to name members of a bipartisan panel that would rewrite district boundaries following the decennial population census. The measure is designed to cut down on the increasingly popular practice of gerrymandering, in which states redraw district lines to benefit one party, to protect incumbents or for other political reasons.

Republicans famously succeeded in a middecade redistricting scheme in Texas before the 2004 elections that helped them pick up five seats in the House.

The Supreme Court today will consider the constitutionality of that plan, which was done middecade. Tanner said yesterday that the court's ruling could be pivotal for advocates of reform.

"I think it's a critical issue to the future of our democracy and everyone is waiting to see what Supreme Court is going to do. … I'm hopeful they will say that it doesn't pass constitutional muster to simply redistrict whenever from the standpoint of one-party government. The people have no say-so in this."

Gerrymandering has steadily reduced the number of competitive seats in recent congressional elections, ensuring that the vast majority of incumbents are reelected.

Johnson's support brightens the prospects for the measure, which until now had few backers aside from House Democrats, who wield scant legislative power.

A spokeswoman for Johnson said she hoped that the bill would gain steam as Congress considers reforms to lobbying and ethics rules.

"There are certain things going on at the national level that could put the spotlight on it, things like overall ethics reform and a general feeling of cleaning up D.C. If this is considered part of that, there's going to be interest."

Some reform activists, however, held out more hope that individual states would pass ballot measures to curb gerrymandering than that federal legislators would enact sweeping reforms.

"We were approaching it from a state-by-state basis, but we're obviously supportive of any federal efforts as well," said Mary Boyle, a spokeswoman for Common Cause. "[Johnson's support] is obviously a positive step. We very much believe some momentum is building behind redistricting."

Common Cause, along with other public-interest groups Public Citizen and Fair Vote, endorsed Tanner's bill last year, as did the Blue Dog Coalition, a band of conservative House Democrats that Tanner helped found.

In the states, Florida is nearing approval of a November ballot initiative to turn the redistricting process over to a panel of retired judges. The measure faces a challenge in the state Supreme Court.

Tanner said uniform federal standards for redistricting would be preferable to a piecemeal effort, "but if people want to do it state by state, it's OK with me."

He also said he hopes his fellow Democrats would consider including the measure in their recently introduced ethics package, the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act.

The Tanner and Johnson bills would set up state commissions of no fewer than five members to handle redistricting only once every 10 years. The majority and minority leaders of the state legislatures would select equal numbers of commissioners, and then those commissioners would select a final person to serve as chairman. The commissioners may not have recently held elective or appointed office or worked for a political party or campaign.

The commission must redraw districts with an eye toward contiguity and compactness to prevent the sprawling districts that are now commonplace in many states. In their deliberations, they may not weigh the party affiliation of voters, the district's voting history or the effect of the new districts on incumbents.