Recent surveys have consistently shown public dissatisfaction with Congress, in some cases the worst approval ratings in close to a decade. Yet the level of job security for Congressional incumbents is astronomical. Only 37 House Members won 55 percent of the vote or less in 2004, and only seven lost their seats. In recent elections, up to 98 percent of House incumbents have been returned to office.
This paradox has more than one cause, but it’s hard to ignore the impact of pro-incumbent redistricting efforts that have dominated since the completion of the 2000 Census, as well as the off-year redistricting efforts, most notably the one in Texas that essentially left incumbents free of challenges by the opposite party. The voters — thanks also to the parties, whose campaign arms barely bother to contest such “safe seats” — have been given a Congress that is solidly insulated from popular discontent and is responsive only to primary challengers from the far right and far left ends of the ideological spectrum.
A bill proposed by Rep. John Tanner (D-Tenn.) and other conservative Blue Dog Democrats is designed to ease this situation. While it is not perfect, it would go a long way toward improving matters. Tanner’s bill would create national standards for redistricting that include the establishment in each state of commissions charged with redrawing Congressional district lines. Equally important, they would be able to do so only once every 10 years.
Specifically, the measure would require that states set up commissions of at least five members, with the tie-breaking vote chosen by a (bipartisan) majority of the remaining members. Each commission member would be drawn from a pool of officials who had steered clear of partisan activities for a fixed period, and who agree not to run for Congress for a decade. The commissioners would draw maps based on raw population numbers, city and county lines, and Voting Rights Act protections, but without reference to political factors such as voting patterns or party registration. Their map would then be subject to approval, without amendment, by the legislature and governor. If the process were to fail to produce a map within a year, the job would devolve to the courts.
Tanner’s bill sidesteps the inherent problems with both legislature-drawn maps and traditional forms of bipartisan commissions, instead drawing fruitfully on some of the best systems currently in place — Iowa’s and Arizona’s. It also avoids some of the pitfalls built into the redistricting-reform proposal backed by California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) — most worryingly, Schwarzenegger’s desire to implement the new system immediately, rather than wait until 2010.
While the idea of setting national redistricting standards for a national legislative body seems sensible, we do foresee one potential problem with Tanner’s legislation: The nitty-gritty of states having to overhaul their current redistricting systems could kick off a chaotic period of rewriting state constitutions, with the potential for unrelated mischief. We also think that inserting a grandfather clause for effective (but, under the Tanner bill, noncompliant) systems, such as Iowa’s, would be prudent. But these are relatively minor issues. We would hope that the majority’s desire to insulate its control over the chamber does not stand in the way of a bill that would, in the long run, help Congress better represent the will of the people.