Bipartisan redistricting reform offered, not optimism

Several lawmakers on Wednesday introduced a measure to give control of redistricting to nonpartisan, independent panels.

It is the third time the measure has been introduced in the House, and Rep. John Tanner (D-Tenn.), the bill's lead sponsor, said time is running short.

"The system has become so corrupted over the last 47 years," Tanner said, adding more partisan electorates created by gerrymandering leads to more partisan elected officials. "We are not addressing the country's major problems. It's always a game of oneupmanship."

Added ex-Rep. Bob Edgar (D-Pa.), who heads Common Cause: "If this bill doesn't move in the short term, it will be 2022 before any real reform will be made."

The bill would limit the power state legislatures have in redrawing lines by concentrating authority in the hands of independent commissions while limiting the redistricting process to once every ten years -- a direct reaction to mid-decade redistricting in Texas spearheaded by ex-Rep. Tom DeLay (R).

"This is a blight on our democracy. Our founders did not intend a system like this," added Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.), another of the bill's early backers.

The nonpartisan commissions would hew closely to the redistricting process in Washington State, where legislative leaders of both Democratic and Republican caucuses in the state House and Senate each appoint one member. The fifth member would have to be agreed upon by the four appointed members.

"We should have a bipartisan reapportionment commission in each state," said Rep. Mike Castle (R-Del.), the bill's main GOP sponsor. "It would improve the politics of this country, and improving the politics stands behind improving the governance of the United States of America."

Tanner's legislation would prohibit members of the commission from running for Congress for the ten following years, during which the lines they draw are in effect.

Nothing in the bill will infringe on a states ability to conduct state or local elections or “the districts used in such elections.” However, it is still likely to be viewed by many as an unprecedented foray into an arena long dominated by state legislatures.

But while time is running out before the Census Bureau begins counting Americans next year and the redistricting process begins the following year, the bill's chief backers are not optimistic of their chances for success.

"This is a tough slog. I think the likelihood of this moving forward is not high," Castle said. "I don't see the leadership being enthusiastic about it."

Cooper said it is unlikely President Obama would get involved, even though he has voiced support for redistricting reform in the past.

"It's pretty dicey for any administration to get too deeply involved in the legislative branch," Cooper said.