Many observers say Illinois’ 4th Congressional District resembles a pair of ragged earmuffs. Intended to capture Chicago’s Latino population, the district carves out two roughly symmetrical disks in the heart of the city, connected by a narrow stretch of I-294.
The district is often cited as a blatant example of “gerrymandering” – but it’s legal. A federal court rejected a challenge to the district map in 2011. And districts that look like Illinois’ 4th Congressional District are increasingly common. With the help of proprietary programs such as Maptitude and access to household-level data, states can now draw districts to their liking with uncanny precision.
As one result, the number of competitive Congressional districts, according to the Cook Political Report, dropped from 164 in 1998 to just 90 in 2013.
“It’s gotten so bad that you could say politicians elect their voters, not the other way around,” says Rep. Jim Cooper (D-TN).
For the last three Congresses, Cooper has sponsored bipartisan legislation that would reform the way state legislatures draw their Congressional districts. One proposal he’s sponsoring this Congress would require states to appoint “independent redistricting commissions” to take over the task of drawing district boundaries. A second proposal would make the redistricting process more transparent and allow public comment on proposed district maps.
A handful of states have already adopted independent commissions of the type proposed in Cooper’s bill. However, these commissions are also under challenge in the U.S. Supreme Court. In particular, the court is examining the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission, created by a voter referendum in 2000. The Court’s ruling could have far-reaching implication for the handful of other states that have opted independent redistricting, such as California and Idaho.
Redistricting reform, Cooper says, is the only way to break the gridlock that he sees too often paralyzing Washington.
Why is gerrymandering so destructive?
Cooper: Gerrymandering increases the number of fights in Washington because the most extreme people in America get elected from these tilted districts. In earlier Congresses – in the 1980s and 1990s – it was much more bipartisan.
Gerrymandering isn’t the only problem, of course. You can fault cable TV shows and other influences like social media that have helped build large followings for some very extreme people. But there’s certainly less congeniality in Congress, much more partisanship and as a result, much more gridlock. There are many important national issues – for example, a transportation bill – that we’ve been unable to pass for seven or eight years. That spells trouble for the country.
What about your own district in Tennessee?
Cooper: The Tennessee legislature was actually among the better behaved. They tried to hold to the “whole county” principle, so my district is less gerrymandered than you might think. But there’s no guarantee they’ll behave in the future, and there’s proof that other states have misbehaved terribly.
I’ve always had the only competitive district in Tennessee. It’s balanced, and I think I’m actually a better legislator because I have to listen to everybody regardless of their partisan persuasion. I have to give everyone the benefit of the doubt, and that’s really what every legislator should do because neither party has a monopoly on good ideas.
You took the unusual move of signing an amicus brief with the Supreme Court to support the Arizona redistricting commission. Why was this important to you to do?
Cooper: I’m usually reluctant to intervene in Supreme Court cases by signing amicus briefs, but I think redistricting is such a basic problem for American democracy that we need to urge the court to do the right thing.
How do you create momentum for reform when the majority of incumbents arguably benefit from the current system – as far as their own job security goes?
Cooper: There’s pretty high turnover in Congress. The average tenure is actually only 6 or 8 years.
And the power of opinion makes a big difference back home. One of the things I’m proudest of is my “No budget, No Pay” bill. Any knowledgeable observer would have given that bill zero chance of passage because almost every member of Congress hated it. But they were so cowed by public opinion at home that it passed the House, passed the Senate and became law, signed by the President. This shows you the power of public opinion.
What other reforms would be on your agenda to make Congress more bipartisan?
Cooper: One of the most important – and least discussed issues – is how to attract high-quality candidates. When our country was founded, the best people in America – Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Ben Franklin, Alexander Hamilton – [were the ones in public service].
Today, so many of the most capable people in America are hedge fund managers or corporate CEOs or university presidents. They would never think about entering politics.
Somehow we need to knock down the barrier between public service and these quality individuals. We face many complicated problems as a nation, and we’re not attracting the best and the brightest into public service any more.
What’s your prognosis for the future of Congress if we can’t get some fundamental reforms achieved?
Cooper: One of my fundamental concerns is that we don’t even have a Congress anymore. It’s a parliament because almost everybody votes the party line 95 to 99 percent of the time. Why waste your time even discussing anything? You just need to approve the party leaders, and the troops will follow along.
You could also argue that we no longer have a representative democracy; you have rule by oligarchs. With campaign finance rules as they are, if you make one angry eccentric billionaire upset, your political career is doomed. There’s nothing you can do about it, and they don’t have to live anywhere near your state. It’s really a bizarre world that the Supreme Court has fashioned for American democracy.
If Congress continues this path, I think the public might get so incensed they might right the situation themselves. But I hope we don’t have to have a crisis. There are many lesser paths to reform.
Rep. Jim Cooper represents Tennessee’s 5th Congressional District.