‘The system is broken’

Days after his party lost control of the House in a historic wipeout, when voters angry over unemployment, debt and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) elected Republicans to the majority, retiring Rep. John Tanner (D-Tenn.) sat amid a sea of blue bubble-wrapped belongings in his nearly empty office and predicted that in a system rigged by gerrymandering, not much can change and the nation’s worst problems are likely to continue unabated.

“People elected from these stuffed districts almost unknowingly or unwittingly are robbed of the ability to go into the middle and achieve compromise to solve problems for fear of being punished in the next party primary for cavorting with the enemy,” said Tanner. “There is no real discourse.”

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A founder of the Blue Dog Coalition of centrist and conservative Democrats, Tanner is leaving Congress after 22 years of representing Tennessee’s 8th district and working in a place that no longer exists in the modern political system — the complicated but compromising space in between the two parties. Having worked in the U.S. House through both Gulf Wars, the impeachment of President Clinton, the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the war in Afghanistan, recessions, an economic crisis and a balanced budget followed by an explosion of debt, Tanner sees the current rejection of consensus and cooperation and hyper-partisan environment as a recipe for permanent gridlock. 

In the midterm elections, Republicans won back seats they had lost in the last two election cycles, where Democrats elected to GOP districts had been serving on borrowed time. While holding a bulk of the swing districts — 62 — before Nov. 2, Democrats lost 35 of them. There are only 91 districts considered competitive, according to Charlie Cook’s Partisan Voting Index (PVI), meaning that they are within four points of having a neutral PVI. Tanner notes that since only 21 percent of districts are competitive, 79 percent are places where the outcome of elections is likely to be determined before Election Day. Whoever wins the middle wins the gavel, Tanner said, but it’s a middle that’s simply too small. Democrats like Pelosi, whose district was rated D+35 in Cook’s index in the 111th Congress, hardly have incentive to compromise the way members in swing districts do. Compare that to Democrats who lost their jobs — like Rep. Allen Boyd (Fla.) or Rep. Betsy Markey (Colo.), whose offices are right next to Tanner’s in the Longworth Building and whose districts are rated R+6. 

“The underlying problem is that the system is broken,” Tanner said. “Ideological purists are rendering Congress incapable of dealing with problems facing America.”

As both parties fail to govern, the electorate is becoming increasingly frustrated. Tanner noted that consecutive wave elections in 2006, 2008 and 2010 are the result of political volatility not seen in modern history. The uncertainty it creates ultimately affects consumer confidence and the outlook for economic growth, Tanner said.

In January redistricting will begin again in 50 states — a process that largely excludes the public and cements gridlock, Tanner said. He has introduced the Fairness and Independence in Redistricting Act for the last three Congresses, which calls for minimum standards for drawing districts, transparency and an independent, bipartisan redistricting commission. 

Not many Americans understand how many of their votes don’t count, but Tanner said politicians don’t want them to. “Nobody gives a damn because they’re all invested in the status quo,” he said. Tanner is considering filing a suit against a system he said is unconstitutional. If the voters don’t get involved to change the system, representation will always be manipulated. And all the voter anger in the world can’t get Congress to solve our worst problems. 

Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.