(CNN) – Gridlock. These days, many Americans feel that is all they are getting from their government.
To examine the problem and potential solutions as part of CNN's special series "Broken Government," we spoke with two men who decided to get out of government entirely.
Tom Davis served 14 years as a Republican congressman from Virginia. He retired in 2008 and is now the president of Main Street Advocacy.
And Rep. John Tanner, a Democrat from Tennessee, announced his retirement in December after more than 20 years in office.
They spoke with John Roberts on CNN's "American Morning" Monday. Below is an edited transcript of the interview.
John Roberts: Congressman Tanner, let's start with you. Evan Bayh said last week, when he announced that he wasn’t going to stand for re-election, that Congress is not functioning as it should. Do you believe Congress is broken?
John Tanner: I do, and I think it goes back really to 1962 in a case from Tennessee, Baker v. Karr, where the Supreme Court of the United States ruled every congressional district ... based on population, had to have approximately the same number of people. That has been refined, and now the gerrymandering that goes with that … that has gone all over the country.
What it means is the most partisan elements of our society, those on the left and right who believe their party is right and the other guy is always wrong, are electing, to the best of our count, almost 350 members of the 435 members here in the House. And so people are responsive to the people that elect them, so you have the left and the right here, and there’s very little in the middle.
Roberts: Congressman Davis, do you agree with that, that redistricting is the problem? We had a poll out last week, 63% of respondents think most members of Congress don’t deserve to be re-elected. Yet, on average, in an election, 90% of House members return.
Tom Davis: 80% of the members come from districts where their race is their primary, it's not the general election. They don't get rewarded for compromising, they get punished if they compromise with the other side. By the way, the Voting Rights Act, [is] in concert with Baker v. Karr – because the Voting Rights Act … has made the districts even more partisan. The difficulty is a lot of these members’ races are in primary elections and not in generals. In primaries, you don't get rewarded for compromising with the other side, you get punished.
Roberts: Congressman Tanner, you have introduced – four years running now, I think – legislation to change how congressional districts are laid out. But it doesn’t seem like anybody is willing to go along with what you’re proposing.
Tanner: Yeah, we have. … We don't think that bill has much of a chance because of the obvious reasons. A lot of people are invested in this system. We are now going to introduce and almost have it ready what is called the Transparency Bill, which will hopefully allow for more public input and disclosure as this very technical process of redistricting unfolds next year.
I have argued the way the present system is, really it could be considered unconstitutional in that people who are deliberately put for only a political reason into a 70/30 or 80/20 district, have basically – if they’re part of the 30 or 20 – have basically had their vote taken away from them and they don't even know it. The 80% don't need them and they can't help the 20% and they don't even know what’s happened to them.
Roberts: Congressman Davis, is there something else at work here? Even though our poll found 63% of people feel most members of Congress don't deserve to be re-elected, the majority, 51%, said they believe their member of Congress deserves re-election. Our polling director calls it the BIMBY syndrome – better in my backyard. Their judgment is not lacking to the point where the person I voted for last time doesn’t deserve to get re-elected. So is that a problem as well?
Davis: The individual members I think come to Washington with the right motivation. They want to do well and then they get caught up in a system that was designed to be deliberative. We know it's not efficient and sometimes it's bordering on dysfunction or even being broken. Because leaders get elected, leaders’ report cards is do I get my members re-elected, and they spend their time making sure their party is looking good, as opposed to working together to get legislation through. It is a system that has been going on for decades now.
Roberts: Congressman Tanner, if you can't fix this through redistricting, which is what you’ve tried to do, is there any other way to get Congress to function as it should?
Tanner: It will be ultimately up to the people of this country who see the system itself is flawed. The members here, as Tom said, by and large come here wanting to do something good for the country. Democrat or Republican, it doesn't matter. This system has bred almost away from our representative system. It has bred this almost a parliamentary system. It makes no sense.
It’s irrational for me as a southern conservative Democrat to vote every time on every issue with a northern urban liberal, or western rancher, or whatever. And yet you see time and again here, all the Democrats voting one way and then the Republicans voting another way – except for the Blue Dog Democrats that I belong to. That's irrational, and it does not represent what our country represents, and that is, not a parliamentary system, but a representative system. So until you get to the root cause, I don't know how you make in-roads into really fixing the problem here.