A Candid Q&A with Rep. Jim Cooper on Redistricting, Our New Federal Courthouse and More

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U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper opened the doors to his downtown office to a handful of reporters yesterday in the first of a planned series of "pen and paper" sessions with local journalists.

Although the turnout was low (only four scribblers showed up in bad weather), the topics at hand were wide-ranging, finding Cooper dishing on a variety of topics: Redistricting efforts already underway at the Nashville Capitol; prospects for a long-languishing new federal courthouse; lowered Congressional expectations for 2012; President Obama's re-election; and, of course, the Blue Dog's best-known bailiwick, the Congressional budget.

Click through the jump for a smattering of Cooperisms.

REDISTRICTING

On redistricting, you've been preemptively getting it out there that Nashville could be split. Was that a genuine fear? Talk about what you've seen to make you come to the conclusion that that was a real possibility.

We knew it was a national Republican strategy, to split up urban areas. Tennessee had not seen that yet, but this was their big chance to implement that national strategy. It had already happened in Austin, Texas, a city that is similar to Nashville.

The New York Times finally caught up to this. They finally did an article, and actually quoted Mayor Dean, just about a month ago. It doesn't matter if it's in a Republican state, they want to chop up cities, so I was hoping they would not do that here. And if the current map passes, I'm actually pleased that they listened and restored all of Davidson County.

Davidson County had been 95 percent complete. There's that little area south that had been taken out 10 years ago, and it looks like they had corrected that mistake.

I worried good Tennessee people are being infected by national politics, because we're seeing more and more, year for year, we had very little negative advertising here. We're losing that tradition and some of these other traditions. You've the legislation that's been sponsored by the group [ALEC], the Republican legislators, that's gradually, you know, voter ID, stuff like that, where we're not coming up with bills our people need, we're more copying in a parliamentary system what the national Republican think-tanks think we should have. Well, that might fit in other states, but it doesn't work here. It's not the Tennessee way of doing things, which has generally been a better way of doing things.

Aside from being pleased about keeping Nashville intact, have you done the calculus on net gains/loss in your district, and what do you think it does?

Well, the current 5th District is about the right number of people, and the only bipartisan district in Tennessee. I thought, "Hey, if it ain't broke, don't fix it." It looks like the new district that they've drawn up will be the right size and will also be bipartisan.

We can tell it's about the same partisan makeup. It may be slightly more Democratic, but we really don't know enough to know because under the new map I would be giving up west Wilson County, I'd be gaining all of Dickson County.

Plus a lot of these assumptions are … think what that assumes about voters. It assumes that they never change their minds. It assumes that they're not aware of who the candidates are. I think those assumptions are simplistic. Now there are some straight party-line voters, but most folks that I'm meeting are independent, or they might call themselves one party or the other but they shift. Thank goodness Tennessee's had open primaries for forever. California's finally adopting that for the first time. So our system, Tennessee solutions have tended to be pretty good.

What areas have you picked up?

It's Crieve Hall, Radnor Lake, Forest Hills, Oak Hill. I think it's five or seven precincts down there that were taken out and put in Marsha Blackburn's district, and that has been impossible to explain to people. I see people all the time who live south of Tyne Boulevard, they say, "Why am I in the Memphis district?" Usually they don't discover this until they go in and vote, they say — and we've got complaints from the polling people — they'll say, "Why isn't Jim Cooper on the ballot? He's not on the ballot." They think it's a mistake, because most people don't keep up closely. This only happens every 10 years, so this is like a political earthquake.

Things like we were reading yesterday, about Steve Cohen. Took the Jews out of his district. (laughs) You know, it's like, nobody knows what's going on there: Is that just meanness? Like, he's the only Jewish congressman Tennessee's ever had, and they remove both synagogues (laughs, unintelligible) ... It seems gratuitous, but who knows? It's entirely in the hands of the other party.

What's your thought about what they did in DesJarlais' district? Are they setting the table for Ketron to run there.

Looks like it. I haven't looked at that closely, but stretching from Bradley County, which is on the other side of Chattanooga, to Murfreesboro, it looks like those cities would pretty much dominate and both are trending heavily Republican. So ask anybody in Bradley County — this isn't me talking — are they in Middle Tennessee or are they in East Tennessee? They would tell you; they would fight you over this. (laughs) They are in East Tennessee.

But maps are hard to draw, and this is not an easy task.

Any thought son the state house seats within Davidson County, particularly the Sherry Jones-Mike Stewart situation?

That's way complicated. That's kind of above my pay grade. I've looked more at the interlocking horseshoes of the state Senate seats in Nashville, which is almost hard to figure out. It looks like kind of there's an Old Hickory Boulvevard and 440 district and an inner-loop district or something. (laughs)

NEW FEDERAL COURTHOUSE

Can you give us an update on the status of a new federal courthouse, and whether you think federal dollars will eventually go to that project?

What we've tried to do is prevent people from jumping the line. For years, people have been jumping the line, so now I think the line is pretty much frozen. We're second, I think, in the national priorities. And as long as another courthouse doesn't burn down or destroyed by an earthquake, I think we will stay there.

The key principle is to stop the line-jumping, because people use all sorts of weak excuses. It's just line-jumping.

Explain line-jumping.

There's a federal courts commission that evaluates the need in every jurisdiction, and for years we've been trending toward the top, but somebody else would jump in ahead of us. Usually, somebody who serves on the appropriations committee, because they're the most famous line-jumpers in the world, because they make largely secret decisions and roll 'em up in these giant bills where you're either for the whole bill or you're against the whole bill. And buried in the fine print — sometimes in a way that you can't even see in the text of the bill, sometimes it's just in report language — you'll see that they tried to unlevel the playing field.

We established a courthouse caucus in Congress so that people would join it in both parties and say, "All right, let's do what's right here, guys. If this is the criteria, let's use the criteria, not endorse line-jumping."

The economic downturn has slowed our plan, but one day it'll come. We've got the site, we've got the location.

2012 CONGRESS

I hope it'll be more than a gridlock year. It's looking though like there's a partisan stalemate in Washington. I regret that, because we're the greatest nation on Earth. We've got to be able to make policy decisions, but both parties seem to be focusing on the November elections.

Basically what's happened while you guys were growing up is that we have lost our Congress; it's become a parliament. The difference is a congressman is supposed to do what's best for the country, they vote their district and their conscience. A parliament is party line, unthinking obedience to the party line. So instead of loyal party members voting with the party 70 or 80 percent of the time, now they're voting 95, 98 percent of the time with their party. And that means somebody's not thinking, or somebody's not representing folks back home.

OBAMA

You were one of the first, if not the first, prominent Democrat in Tennessee to come out for Obama during the 2008 primaries. Size up his re-election right now.

I think the President has performed very well when he hasn't had to deal with Congress, and when the issues aren't highlighted in the media.

It's acknowledged he's done extremely well in foreign affairs — getting Bin Laden, Qaddafi, that's pretty amazing. And also, sensibly withdrawing our troops form these troubled areas and actually making the wise decision, as it turned out, not to get too deeply involved in Libya but still getting a successful outcome. And I call that forcing NATO to behave like adults for a change, and shouldering their fair share of the burden because they did not do that in Bosnia.

In domestic policy, it's amazing what you find here. If you talk to folks in Nashville, some of the most conservative folks in Nashville who are, for example, charter school advocates, real education reform advocates, are thrilled with Obama. Thrilled. And [Education Secretary] Arne Duncan has done a great job, and this isn't just Race To The Top money, but it's an amazing change in policy at the federal level with very little fanfare, that Congress didn't have anything to do with, really.

The areas where the president has had a hard time are dealing with Congressional folks. That's like quicksand. We talk about the bully pulpit, and we focus on them a lot, but we over-personalize the president. Harry Truman said, "If you want a friend in Washington, buy a dog." If you were president, you would not want as dance partners Harry Reid or Nancy Pelosi.

BUDGET

Have you gotten your arms around how those automatic triggered cuts [due to the failure of the deficit-obsessed Super Committee] would affect entitlements for businesses, particularly in the health care industry?

The way the current law is written, we are under now what is called sequestration, which is across-the-board cuts on everything; your yard and your garden. It's basically an arbitrary and punitive mechanism. It's punitive because it was designed to be so bad that the Super Committee would have to work. but the Super Committee failed.

It turns out, when you look at the fine print, the punishment is kind of a curious punishment. First of all, it doesn't kick-in until January 2013 — next year, after the election. And calendars are important in politics: If it is super terrible, then Congress could repeal the whole thing, and then we would've wasted two or three years. We would've flapped our jaws and accomplished nothing. And that would be tragic.

The other thing people don't know about sequestration is it's not across-the-board on everything. Medicare got a special break. Medicare is limited to a maximum of two-percent cuts, which is much less than other areas. Some leaders in the Nashville health care community actually asked that the congressional delegation sign a letter that in not so many words basically said that we want sequestration because we come out better that way.

In fact, it was embarrassing that we even had to have a Super Committee.

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