Rod Blum is a rarity in Congress — a member who actually wants a competitive district and a real challenge every Election Day. Blum, a Republican, believes this makes him a better congressman. He says that it requires him to listen to — and represent — the feelings of Democrats and independents as well as his fellow Republicans. In an op-ed in The Hill this fall, Blum wrote that he is “honored to represent a competitive district drawn by a nonpartisan redistricting commission.” That requires him to hear out everybody, he suggested, “much like a small businessman must listen to his customers.” Blum also signed onto a bipartisan amicus brief in Gill v Whitford, the Supreme Court case on extreme partisan gerrymandering. We caught up with him last month to talk reform — and incentives.
Dave Daley: Your op-ed, as well as the brief you joined in Gill v Whitford, makes the case that fair districting is essential for a fair democracy. You suggest that allowing politicians to draw their own lines is an unfair perk of incumbency — and that one way to attack it is to frame it as in issue of the people versus the elites. But as you know, that would require incumbents, those elites, to put limits on themselves. Do you see any sense that your fellow lawmakers, of either side, might be ready to look at this in such a way?
Rep. Blum: It’s very interesting: I was not aware of what they had done in California. In a 10-year period – and there’s 53 congressional districts in California — one seat changed political hands. They passed a non-partisan commission to do the district alignments, and in 2012, 26 percent of the seats changed ands.
I’m from Iowa, where we have the same thing, a non-partisan commission in charge. It’s the best process in the country, and we have very competitive elections. Three of the four districts are competitive in Iowa. I represent a Democratic district, but I really feel this is so important – people are so frustrated with Washington because they feel like we’re not representing them. But when I look at any given year, 435 House seats, maybe 35 are competitive. I scratch my head and go “why?”
When you don’t have to go back and report to your constituents, and spent time with them and listen to them – you know, I don’t think you’re good as a representative. And what incentives are there for you to sit down with the other side and come to an agreement on something?
There’s none. Sitting down with the other side, if you represent an uncompetitive district, might earn you a primary challenge. Your incentive is not do that.
That’s right, there are very few incentives there.
So how does this affect governing? Do you see this within your caucus or in talking with folks on the other side? Is the behavior of members shaped by these incentives, by fear of a primary?
Yes. I’ve found that. I’m sure it’s the same in the Democrats’ conference. The biggest concern is being primaried. That’s the biggest concern.
And that pushes politics — and everyone’s behavior — to the extreme?
And makes people less willing to talk to one another?
You nailed it. You just nailed it. In a competitive district, that’s why I’ve stood up to my own party numerous times. I’ve voted against the Republican Party. I’ve voted against a sitting House speaker, John Boehner, because I campaigned on change. People want change. They’re tired of Washington D.C. and career politicians.
How would you fix this? Especially if the Supreme Court does not step in as you would like it to.
Well, if the Court does not step in, then it’s state by state. Some states do it right, and a lot of states don’t do it right. The people are going to have to bring grass-roots pressure. And we all need to talk about this more. I’ll guarantee you 95 percent of the people, your average person out there, when I say gerrymandering to them, they don’t know what gerrymandering is. We need to talk about it more. If people truly want representative government, we have to take care of this. It’s a big issue that congressional seats are not competitive anymore.
Both sides have gerrymandered for a long time, but the Republicans truly reinvented and mastered it with the REDMAP program n 2010 and 2011. Do you think there have been consequences from that for our politics, for how Congress works?
Yes. I think the consequence is what you alluded to a minute ago. We now have the two sides of Washington D.C. that don’t work together, because what’s the incentive to do it now? If — even in theory — every Congressional representative out of 435 had a competitive district back home, then I guarantee you things would change here and we would be forced to work together – even if we didn’t like being forced to work together.
I'm a career businessman and it all comes down to incentives. I understand how people respond to incentives. Right now, I don't see where there are incentives to work together — because most of the people cannot work with the other side, and they're going to get re-elected in a landslide.