A new caucus is taking hold in Washington. It is the “Problem Solvers” caucus, an expansion of the “No-Labels” group that came to inception two years ago, and it encompasses a mix of politicians from all across the spectrum with one goal: to end what I refer to as the “crippling bickering” that has, for far too long, enveloped Washington DC.
And for that, gridlock is too simple a word. What has been taking place in Washington is pure paralysis. “Problem Solvers” doesn’t limit itself to members of Congress nor does it hold regular meetings (though organizers goal is for that to start happening once a month). But it’s message is clear: leave unyielding ideology at the door.
Appropriately, “Problem Solvers” was founded by two men who served together as Governors who have not hesitated vocalize profound disagreements with their parties. Jon Huntsman and Joe Manchin were elected Governors of Utah and West Virginia respectively in 2004, and though it was not obvious at first that either would substantively depart from their parties orthodoxy, neither has hesitated to do so.
For Huntsman, it was his support of Civil Union legislation that earned him the wrath of the very conservative Republicans who dominate Utah politics. But for someone who championed outreach as Utah’s Chief Executive and as a result, had stratospheric approvals (he took 78% in his 2008 re-election) must undoubtedly have been frustrated by his Presidential bid. Many Independents and more than a handful of Democrats voiced dismay that he was not the party’s nominee, as many saw a leader who went beyond the “lesser of two evils.” But he was unable to register as much as 5% in polls, forcing his candidacy to end well before primary season had even begun.
Manchin’s epiphany didn’t come until 2010, when, still Governor, he mounted a bid to succeed the recently departed Sen. Robert Byrd. He began the campaign heavily favored but faltered somewhat amid the toxic climate of 2010. It was then that he refocused his image, running ads doing target practice and vowing to put a bulls-eye in the Obama administration policies he saw as an anathema to West Virginia. Manchin won by a healthy 11%. But as a former Governor of a state entirely controlled by Democrats who is now one of 100, Manchin is surely frustrated by the pace and comity, or, lack thereof. That starts with interacting with colleagues in both chambers, which Manchin sees as non-existent. “We don’t even know each other” he says with dismay.
Ironically, gun control was a focal point of Manchin’s decision to change direction. After Newtown, he was among the first pro-gun lawmakers who publicly stated the need to put all options on the table, and in recent days, he has been particularly open to background checks.
To be sure, “No-Labels” is not designed to stifle folks who have views that they genuinely hold. Rather, it’s purpose is to get folks on board whose proclivity for compromise is well-known, but who are often thwarted by party leaders who don’t share the same goal. Further, as election after election has diminished the membership to a literal handful of centrist groups such as the Democrats “Blue Dogs” and the Republicans “Main Street Partnership,” the “No-Labels” coalition is designed to say that compromise is not a dirty word. And Huntsman and Manchin are not taking small steps. They go right to the economy.
Manchin says “the greatest challenge the American economy has is the American Congress,” In a Washington Post editorial, he and Huntsman said, “businesses are not hiring, and investors are not investing as a direct result of the uncertainty created by Washington. Too many would-be workers are not working. The coming generations are being doomed to a worse standard of living than previous generations. Knowing that should light a fire under everybody in Washington. But it hasn’t. The gridlock continues.”
But the economy is just a start. The crippling bickering extends to other issues big and small. Obama years ago cited seven GOP Senators who removed their names as co-sponsors because he was backing the legislation. Democrats have done the same, most notably Tom Daschle, whose Senate floor speech on the eve of the Iraq War expressing sorrow that Bush “had failed so miserably with diplomacy” brought howls from Republicans, and was a major factor in the loss of his Senate seat the following year, as well it should’ve been. Daschle had voted for the war authorization, number one. But more important,would he had really used that language had a Democrat occupied the White House at the time.
Will “No Labels” really make a difference as far as genuinely impacting policy and comity? One name makes me skeptical: Olympia Snowe. Though Snowe is now an ex-lawmaker, the gentle-lady from Maine, referred to by some as “Saint Olympia” was a member of various centrist groups, and often bemoaned hyper-partisanship to the point that she passionately cited it as a reason for quitting, “Saint Olympia” had the chance of a lifetime to make Washington work in a big way. She passed that up on several occasions.
The first involved a Defense Appropriations bill late in 2009. Well into the vote, the tally was stuck at 59. Republicans insisted that in order for the bill to hit 60, 92 year old Senator Robert Byrd, then wheelchair bound, had to be brought in from his home in order to to get the measure over the top. He was. But then Snowe and a couple of other Rs then cast votes for the measure. Was that really necessary?
A far less benign example was health care reform. Snowe had long championed the issue, worked with Democrats, and in fact voted for a bill with the mandate in the Senate Finance Committee, the sole Republican to do so. The hope was that she would continue this consultation as the bill reached the Senate floor. But her party was publicly vocal about discouraging her from reaching agreement and in the end, she resisted, forcing one of the most important and sweeping pieces of legislation to be without a single member of the other party.
Harry Reid had said that he doubted Snowe ever had any intention of compromising. I disagree. I think Snowe genuinely cared about healthcare reform. In fact, you couldn’t put a gun to my head and make me think Snowe wouldn’t have found a way to come to an agreement had her own party not been in such staunch opposition. But her support in principle was not enough to cave to the pressure of her own party.
Would Snowe have faced less pressure had “no labels”been in place? No. But a pledge to comply with the dynamics of “No Labels” may’ve enabled her to forget about her party. This is the atmosphere that contributes to hyper-partisanship.
Massachusetts Congressman Richard Neal has an outreach philosophy that I consider to be just the right formula. Politics in America 2012 quotes his approach as follows: “What you want to do, more than anything, is establish a reputation for thoughtful analysis. Immerse yourself with facts, reject demagoguery, try to find other men and women of common purpose and good will. Avoiding hyper-charged terms is always good. Stay away from incendiary remarks.” That is frequently done on non-controversial pieces of legislation. But hardly on issues of major importance.
23 members of Congress have signed onto “No Labels” (13 Democrats, 12 Republicans and Maine Independent Angus King). Most have reputations for reaching across the aisle, but a few, like DesJarlais and Jim Moran stand out. And Jack Kingston, who hopes to Chair the House Appropriations Committee, has signed on as well. That is a risk, but one he views as
And Jim Cooper has already proven his fidelity to the caucus, though perhaps not in the manner many had hoped. Two weeks ago, he was the only Democrat oppose the Sandy Aid package, a vote that brought howls from befuddled progressives who are now searching for a primary challenger. Interestingly, Cooper’s fellow Tennessean, Dr. Scott DesJarlais, a tea-party backed anti-abortion sophomore most known for paying a mistress to have an abortion, also saw the need to sign-on.
Huntsman and Manchin hope for 75. In the House, let’s aim for 218. And hopefully 50-60 Senators. Tim Holden, a former Democratic Congressman from Pennsylvania who lost his primary last year in part because of redistricting, but also because his opponent portrayed him as too moderate for a district made far more Democratic, “there are about 70 liberal and 70 ultra-conservative members of Congress.” They need to be left behind.”
Holden made that observation 10 years ago. Since then, the number of near-ideologues in each caucus has probably doubled. But the sentiment remains. So let’s do something to change it. There is literally no more time to waste. For now and for future generations.