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February 22nd, 2010
12:00 PM ET

Broken Government: How to fix Congress?

Rep. John Tanner and Tom Davis spoke with John Roberts on CNN's ''American Morning'' Monday.

Rep. John Tanner and Tom Davis spoke with John Roberts on CNN's ''American Morning'' Monday.

(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.

Survey: 86% believe government broken

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.


Filed under: Broken Government • Politics
soundoff (127 Responses)
  1. cammie morgan

    yup. its gonna go wronger than it is now. i just hope my family survive it. i hate it when people hurt, it makes me sad. i hate it that some say they care, but dont mean it when it comes down to the nitty-gritty. where is the love we suppose to have? i ask GOD, what can i do to help. we have some serious greed goin on here. but, they dont see it. the same thing that was goin on to bring us to our knees, is happening again. do people not understand we need rules and regulations? there are over 300million people livin in the U.S. i know govt. cant solve all our problems, but the same thing was happening way back when the stock market crashed, and caused the great depression. we may have to go down for real, and then rebuild. its gonna harm a lot of people. when a person makes 25million a year, that means someone else didnt get paid somewhere. i dont dislike people with money, but what are they gonna do with all that? i share all that i have when people need it.

    March 10, 2010 at 11:41 pm |
  2. William Visocky

    We have corporate welfare for the super rich and poor man's welfare for the poor and the middle class slaves pay for it all. What a deal! We are maxin our credit card with the bank of Caching. Do you think there is something wrong with this picture? I can see our founding fathers standing there with their anus in cardiac arrest and shaking their heads and wondering how this bunch of spoiled brats could go so wrong.

    March 9, 2010 at 8:34 pm |
  3. cammie morgan

    we, the people, created this mess by votiing in the same-o, same-o, or by not voting, not caring who got in. ya cant serve the people by cutting medicaid, medicare, school funding, etc. i realize some dont like these programs, but it is a part of our economy, whether one admits it or not. when you cut fundings, as the republicans like to do, it unbalances the system. thats why medicaid, medicare, etc. dosnt work properly, i'm for people that NEED help, gettin it. there are lots that does. but when ya "beat the system" it hurts every taxpayer. if ya dont like the way things are goin, vote to correct it. but remember, we dont want someone whose agenda is to close down govt. services. i dont like paying taxes either, but that dont mean some dont need help. everyone wasnt born with good health or with means. thats just the way it is.

    March 9, 2010 at 11:36 am |
  4. OLD-OTTO

    Yes, congress is broken. They appear to think they are so all-knowing that they can tell us what is best for us rather than listen to us when we tell them what we really want them to do.

    1. Congess needs to follow all the rules and laws they pass for us to follow. No exceptions. 2. They should disclose all the benefits that we are paying for them with our tax $'s. 3. They should have to pay for their own health care just like we have to, and we should be able to buy health care plans just like they do.

    I respect the position of the congressmen of this great nation of ours, however, there are few of the holders of those positions that I respect any more for they appear to think they are, by virtue of their position, above the law. How long would any of us "commoners" keep our jobs after lying on a job app, or hiding funds that we "forgot" to disclose, etc., etc., etc.?

    We, the people, caused this by failing to properly exercise our right to vote. We would not need term limits if we had a 75%, or better, voter turnout at election time. It is absolutely disgusting that we do not have better turn outs on election day. But we sure as heck have a lot of complainers.

    More complainers than voters, that's our biggest problem in congess. WE DID IT BY NOT VOTING. Voting is the only way congress will listen.

    March 5, 2010 at 11:47 pm |
  5. OLD-OTTO

    Yes. Congess is broken. Too many are more concerned about getting re-elected than speaking for the people who elected them.
    1. Congress should be required to follow all the laws it passes just as they expect us to folow them.

    March 5, 2010 at 11:15 pm |
  6. Jorge

    On the subject of illegal immigrants getting a free ride and making all the rest of us pay. How about we charge the people who coax them to come here to disorient our labor force? These companies hire illegals so that they don't have to pay legitimate wages to American workers. They profit by the illegals work, so have them pay for the extra costs of bringing them health care with whatever they're saving by not hiring an American Citizen. Or is that taxing the rich again? Bunch of cry babies.

    March 2, 2010 at 1:47 pm |
  7. Joseph Daniel Brian Lawlor

    Jorge.....when Government, Industry, Finance, Academic, Military, Media, Religion(spirituality+ethics) and the Peoples done wrong leads to Anarchy..the more they are done wrong the more it will grow.

    "When a country has a manufacturing base and is able to have commerce with other nations at its bequest that's when a country is strongest. all empires have eroded when they have over reached, disoriented their work force and allowed their Financial institutions to wallow in laziness while they skim the riches of their lazy lifestyles.= basic construction is it not Jorge..Secure upper levels of Industry and Finance while Industry and Finance diamantle the lower levels leads to an eventual collapse does it not.
    Patience Jorge...unlike the lemmings who blindly followed leaderships off the cliffs to their deaths a generation opened their eyes and the generations that followed are opened wider. They see the direction and do not like it so are moving to repair. They need to see the corruption in order to eventually fix the problem.
    Reason for the biblical words to hold ones "private interpretation" to self so important here Jorge over trying to push that private interpretation down our throats which is ongoing by Religion and political leaders.

    Government, Industry, Finance, Academic, Military, Media, Religion(spirituality+ethics) and the Peoples. How do we repair/fix? reverse order Jorge and your one who blindly folows no more correct. Eight ingredients for a global body but to see the affects when eveil gets by us and grows within that body=priceless.
    We shall use mercy, forgiveness and diplomacy if an evil comes before us but if that evil persists, without mercy, without forgiveness that evil shall be removed from the equation. The kids will be taught their math and sciences Jorge..along with so much more.

    March 2, 2010 at 6:55 am |
  8. Jorge

    OK Mister Lawler, Its your speech you go ahead and use it as you like. The question you pose to me about Anarchy I couldn't answer. I am not an Anarchist nor do I presume to understand its Idealogy. I believe that government is a necessary evil, but evil is the definitive word there... So we must always be on the alert when government is engaging in evil things against 'the Peoples', if you will. Its not enough to wave flags and make believe your more patriotic than the next person because you claim to love our country and stand up at every national anthem and support every military action we engage in just for the sake of riding in the front seat of our societies limousine. We have to stand up for the decent standard of living of our fellow citizens first, even if that means going against the government. Even if it means abandoning the democrats and the republicans and their spinoff parties.
    When a country has a manufacturing base and is able to have commerce with other nations at its bequest that's when a country is strongest. all empires have eroded when they have over reached, disoriented their work force and allowed their Financial institutions to wallow in laziness while they skim the riches of their lazy lifestyles. And when they delude themselves to believe that God is on their side so he will intervene for them. Rome had God, Spain had God England and Holland had him and yet their empires fell. What 'The Peoples' need are godless men who will demand that their children learn science and math and be skeptical of all kinds of mysticism, especially religion.

    March 1, 2010 at 4:39 pm |
  9. Joseph Daniel Brian Lawlor

    I agree Jorge...The Tea Party has a possibilty but may not be what forms to represent the Peoples as a whole.
    I use Peoples to represent all colors and all Peoples because I find People signifies a specific group or grouping. I find Peoples all inclusive.

    The Peoples in the early days voted as their employer voted as we blindly followed leaderships. We are beginning to follow blindly no more but we are still few to the many who continue to follow blindly still voting in favor of their employers.

    Jorge..how does one grow anarchy....someone is growing it.

    March 1, 2010 at 1:33 pm |
  10. Jorge

    And in answer to Micheal Marshall, Congress isn't as innocent or as duped in all this as you make them out to be

    March 1, 2010 at 12:37 pm |
  11. Jorge

    Joseph: with all due respect No I don't think the Tea Party is the answer. We need a political party that represents all the people of middle class and working class backgrounds not just Caucasians with Republican agendas. What we have to do is break away from this Ping Ponging effect we have of one term Repubs and another term Dems it's not getting us anywhere. But if we have and choose new party affiliations they should be totally different than either of these two, and we won't get anywhere with newer parties either if we allow corporations to buy their favors from congress. We need a complete overhaul of this greedy corrupt system. Lets hope we dont have to come to arms to do it and we can conduct the reform necessary diplomatically and as one nation united. We cant trust either of the two parties or any of their spinoff parties we have to come up with new representation... thats the serious truth. By the way
    peoples is very odd sounding English 'people' sounds much better.

    March 1, 2010 at 12:28 pm |
  12. Joseph Daniel Brian Lawlor

    The Republican and Democratic Parties each an arm to the nation and reflective of the demographic mindset of a nation that is to be served. A winner take all attitude ties one arm slowing down that process of servitude does it not.
    Government, Industry, Fianance, Academic, Military,Media, Religion(spirituality+ethics) and the Peoples. These are not separate systems but all part of one operating system yet to be put together properly. Eight ingredients for a successful global society but put together wrong enures a bitter taste when served does it not.

    With Government under the influence of Industry and Finance the Peoples in need of a party geared for the wellness and betterment of the Peoples as a whole. The Tea Party could be that very party could it not?

    March 1, 2010 at 10:41 am |
  13. Mary Lou Ritter

    Thank you for allowing me to speak. Thank you for your interesting program this evening. I enjoyed listening to the congressmen. I hope we can encourage these congressmen to stay in office.

    February 28, 2010 at 6:32 pm |
  14. michael marshall

    Congress does not realise that it has been manipulated by special interests groups who uses valid arguments to get legislation passed.The change in interest deductions was a well crafted ploy to increase profits for banks ,while Congress thought it was helping the economy.The change in bankruptcy legislation is just another example of how Congress was used to aide the housing pyramid.It is more profitable for companies to lay off workers than produce products all because of loopholes created by Congress.Tax cuts for the wealthy may produce a job bubble ,but the loss of tax revenue is not closely offset.Congress has rewarded the business model after McDonald ,which is good part time employment,but for a head of house ,is nothing more than a welfare office ,food stamps and medicaid.Just like the past administration ,congress is still arguing about rooms on the titanic,while some are getting into the few life boats.Congress is a lost cause.

    February 28, 2010 at 4:02 pm |
  15. cammie morgan

    we dont want congressmen that dont want to work with the other party like the tea partiers want to put in. thay defeats the purpose of getting things done. there are 290 bill in the senate that needs to be passed. unemployment is being cut by some states. my daughter gets $45 now down from $150. tax cuts for the middle class workers, some of the cuts are being redirected somewhere else. i saw on a cspan program where the repub party paid a judge to vote for a bill he had be against forever, so i thought, what, i wonder, does this have to do with the blue dogs/republican party and voting against healthcare bill? we may not want people covered, but is it necessary? i hate it when i hear people complain about not wanting to pay their hard earned money on this or that, but enjoy the services when created. there are some hard working congressmen and some not so much. dont punish the ones that dont deserve it. just sayin.

    February 28, 2010 at 10:42 am |
  16. Scott

    The biggest problem with congress is the simple fact that we keep re-electing the same greedy SOB's each election. We need to shake up the 'status quo' and put some new blood into congress. But we also need to elect people who actually know what it's like to live pay-check to pay-check.
    We need to elect average people from blue-collar backgrounds instead of lawyers and rich people who have no clue how things really work on main-street. We need to elect small-business people, school teachers, doctors, etc. People who know what it's like down in the trenches.
    I say, come November, no incumbent should be re-elected. They've had their chance. Time to let new people with new ideas, and current, real-life experience; have a chance to fix what the incumbents have screwed up.
    As to the Health Care issue. If it's so bloody important, it shouldn't be left up to congress. Put the bill on the net, and let the American People voice their true wishes come November. Then, nobody can say it's the Republican's fault, or the Democrat's fault. It will be the "Will of the People" that decides the issue.
    But then, who am I to tell Washington what to do? I'm just an American Citizen. In the eyes of my congress man, if I'm not rich, in his party, and kissing his @$$, I'm a nobody. Somebody tell me that I'm wrong.

    February 25, 2010 at 10:14 pm |
  17. Tony D

    Being poor usually means you can’t afford to rent your own place and a car is simply out of the question and your family and or friends are not much better off than you are. So guess what you are poor by anybody’s standards including your own. Now that being said yes some of them may have made bad decisions but my bet would be that they were raised in that condition their parents were poor and so on and so forth so to make a point the poor have very few people representing them and for sure it is not the GOP nor the Sarah Palin teabaggn fools now the poor definitely don’t pay taxes unless they work in a minimum wage job which by its nature is very minimum and the goverment even takes some of that along with SSN, medicade tax and of course the double taxation of paying state income tax but if you have a houseload of kids you can get more taxes back but my "God" is that a life of choice or just part of being poor I challenge any members of congress to try it out and raise a family under those circumstances and worry about what great schools you will send your precious one to and then cry because big corporations have to actually pay low end people anything at all let them work for food is probably their motto ‘’serves them right ‘’for being poor they should have got off their butts and got a job! Yeah stinking poor it’s all their fault having to live on food stamps, Medicare, government housing yeah everyone really wants to spend their life in those dwellings. When I grow up I want to be a professional poor person yeah that’s the ticket.

    February 25, 2010 at 8:41 pm |
  18. Donald

    I am tired of whining republicans about every single issue that anyone takes up. Get over it, you lost and now you're taking your bitterness out on the american people where nothing is getting done. This is just a ploy to win back the presidency from a black man whom none of you republicans wanted in the first place and try to protect yourself from any thing that would lessen your chances of winning re-election in the fall. DON'T YOU GUYS KNOW THAT PEOPLE MATTER!! Enough of this just say no to every piece of legislation and do the work of the people who sent you there in the first place oh i forgot you really don't care!! Most of you were born with a silver or gold spoon in your mouth! Join the real world and see how it feels.

    February 25, 2010 at 7:56 pm |
  19. Stephen Trusas

    We can only hope that they either retire or get voted out of office. Enough of the childish bidkering!

    February 25, 2010 at 7:27 pm |
  20. Chuck Thomas

    A lot of good ideas here, but one thing top of mind is the real opportunity that has been "blown" by the Tea Party Movement in NOT declaring themselves to be a third political party in the making. Maybe the reason is they are just a front for the Republican naysayers. As hickish and wild as Ross Perot often appeared to be in making his presidential bid years ago, he did accomplish one thing, and that was send a jolt through Congress that broke loose lots of log jams. If the party-bound people feel threatened, they are also a bit sobered. And therefore motivated to make progress. I highly recommend the March 1 Time magazine article on Washington being tied up. It has lots of constructive ideas. Third Party Movement, anyone?

    February 25, 2010 at 7:01 pm |
  21. William

    Amend the constitution, to read as follows: No group, or corporation can contribute to the election of any elected office in the these United States. Only an individual can seek redress to his or her represenitive. To be clear that any union, religious organization, corporation, including nonprofit,or their represenative may converse with or soliciate a represenative of the government other than in writing to be published in legal form as required in all other legal notices and as required by law. (Can you imagaine the uptick in casket sales?).

    February 25, 2010 at 6:23 pm |
  22. Candace

    I'm glad that they gave the American People a chance to see what the Obama administration is trying to choke down the throats of every tax paying American... My daughter was on Medicaid when she had an asthma attack and went to the hospital. The hospital turned her away and told the ambulance to send her to a walk-in clinic! Then, by the time she got to a walk-in clinic down the street she had turned blue from lack of oxygen and the walk-in clinic sent her back to the hospital because she needed to be on a ventilator and respirator... From all the back and forth, she was brain-dead when they finally, got her to the ICU. Hospitals denied her cause she was on Medicaid and did not have a job. Medicaid is not the way to go for the majority of America. Please don't pass this bill. Doctors do not treat people the same when you are on Medicaid or Medicare!!! The Middle-class is also, discriminated against by insurance companies cause my mother was on Blue cross and Blue Shield all of her working life, then when she was in her 60's she got cancer and even with insurance she had to take a $3,000.00 check to the treatment center everytime she needed chemo... This is not fair. Why have insurance if when you need them they take all of your life savings just to pay for your treatments??? I think people should be given the chance to pay for healthcare like you buy a mattress. Usually, when I would sell a mattress to people since I sold furniture I would say there is good, better, and best! Then, give people the option to pay for the different types of healthcare. If you pay for the best thats what you should get!!!

    February 25, 2010 at 6:07 pm |
  23. Jake

    It is a shame how elected Senators choose to play the corporate game. This ought to send a signal to the PEOPLE as for whom NOT to vote for in the next mid term elections. Among them, Bill Nelson, Lieberman, and the rest of the Republican/Democratic/ Independent lobbyists in the Senate, oops! I meant Senators in the Senate. Forgive my mistake.

    February 25, 2010 at 5:11 pm |
  24. Sharon

    The one issue that most of agree upon is that our government is definitely broken. Its the dems. against the republicans & has been for years. We need to end college electorial votes, give the vote back to the people as individuals. No more lobbying ,nor money from them for campaigns. No more corporate money for campaigns. We need to have a sales tax or a flat tax,do away with the irs. it is a flawed system, only the wealthy get to have big deductions. People would buy products & would pay tax upfront. However, no tax on neccessities. for instance. No tax on food,health care,1st house (2nd house,yes). I could go on,but we are taxed again & again & the majority of us only get to use our interest paid on our homes as a main deduction. Have a 6% or 8% tax on unneccesary products.If the rich buy products over seas, they will pay tax on them when they arrive in the USA. Stop borrowing from social security for other programs. It was meant to be used when a person retired. That's why we all paid into the system,for our future. Our politicians are the ones that screwed with it & used that money for their own programs.If people got their whole paychecks they would be able to budget & when they were ready to make big purchases they would do so. I believe that the majority of us are absolutely sick of the waste of our hard earned dollars. Actually, we are suppose to be the government & should not be paying these folks in office such huge salaries. Another thing, I have heard people on welfare, say "why should I work, I get more on welfare than I would if I worked). I have been in the grocery store & seen people give the clerk food stamps & they are buying steaks, standing there with expensive leather jackets & loaded with jewelry, come on, the whole system has to change.

    February 25, 2010 at 4:48 pm |
  25. Lewis

    On term limit we already have them. It's called election day. Think about this we have the Tec-knowledge to have a vote as taxpayers on every bill put together by congress. Give us a 33.3% power an equal share of the political form.

    February 25, 2010 at 3:05 pm |
  26. Mike

    The answer is: TERM LIMITS

    February 25, 2010 at 2:56 pm |
  27. Fred

    How to fix Congress??
    VOTE EVERY CURRENT REPRESENTATIVE OUT OF OFFICE,
    Stop the career politicians that have forgotten the people that voted them there to start with and start fresh every 4 years.
    It would be great for our country.

    February 25, 2010 at 2:33 pm |
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