A rare display of real political courage
© Greg Nash

Most adults can still recall the cliquish behavior that defined life in middle school. Unfortunately, in ways that should embarrass some of those adults today who serve in Congress, life in Washington operates along many of the same rules as those adolescent cliques. Representatives are elected by their constituents to do what’s best for the country, and they initially head to Washington wanting to do exactly that. But once they’re sworn in they face a bevy of carrots and sticks all designed to keep them loyal to either the Republican clique or the Democratic clique.

Here’s what many casual observers of our politics may fail to realize. Party leaders dispense committee assignments, fundraising assistance, office space, and opportunities to have a bill considered on the floor. That leverage frequently compels members of Congress to choose to do what their party leaders demand—or else risk jeopardizing the opportunities they might otherwise have to influence the legislative process.


What’s most troubling in Washington today is that nearly every vote is considered to be some kind of loyalty test. There is no respect for independent thinking. You can’t vote “liberal” on one issue and “conservative” on another if that is what you think makes sense. Why? Because, over the long run, independence will drive a wedge between you and your party leaders. The consequences of remaining independent are too punitive.

What is a profile in courage in Washington today? It means risking the wrath of your own party’s leadership by voting for what you think is right, even if that means voting with your colleagues across the aisle. We see too little of this sort of courage today. But last week, three Republicans put their bravery on display.

At the beginning of each session of Congress the majority party (this year, the Democrats) establish new rules to govern the House over the ensuing two years. These rules determine who chooses which versions of any given bill are considered on the House floor, who gets to offer amendments, and much more.

Generally, all members of the majority party vote for the rules, and the members of the minority vote against it. It is hard to understand why adopting the rules of the chamber should be a partisan vote but that’s what it has become. There’s rarely any suspense about whether the rules package will pass because, were there any doubt of the outcome, the majority party’s leadership would refuse to bring it up for a vote.

This year was no different. When Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiTrump scramble to rack up accomplishments gives conservatives heartburn Sherrod Brown backs new North American trade deal: 'This will be the first trade agreement I've ever voted for' Overnight Health Care — Presented by That's Medicaid — Turf war derails push on surprise medical bills | Bill would tax e-cigarettes to pay for anti-vaping campaign | .5M ad blitz backs vulnerable Dems on drug prices MORE (D-Calf.) brought the new House rules up for a vote everyone knew the package would pass. And had things gone according to the typical routine—no member of the minority caucus has voted for the majority’s rules package in 18 years—Republican leaders could have presumed that every member of the GOP caucus would vote against it.


But then things took a turn for the unexpected. Three brave Republicans, all members of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, voted their consciences. Reps. Tom ReedThomas (Tom) W. ReedKoch campaign touts bipartisan group behind ag labor immigration bill On The Money: Fed holds rates steady in end to challenging year | Powell says deal on new NAFTA could settle economic jitters | CEOs' economic outlook drops for seventh straight quarter House panel votes to temporarily repeal SALT deduction cap MORE and John KatkoJohn Michael KatkoConservative group hits White House with billboard ads: 'What is Trump hiding?' House GOP criticizes impeachment drive as distracting from national security issues Progressive group unveils first slate of 2020 congressional endorsements MORE of New York, and Rep. Brian FitzpatrickBrian K. FitzpatrickDemocrats launch bilingual ad campaign off drug pricing bill The Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by AdvaMed — House panel delays impeachment vote until Friday Koch campaign touts bipartisan group behind ag labor immigration bill MORE of Pennsylvania all risked the wrath of their leaders by voting for the Democratic rules package, even as three Democratic members surprisingly voted against it.

Reed, Katko and Fitzpatrick were doing exactly what we should expect members of Congress to do. They were voting for parts of a package they had supported as members of the Problem Solvers Caucus—rule changes that Democratic members of the Caucus had negotiated with Speaker Pelosi before agreeing to support her. But by signaling their willingness to work in a bipartisan manner, Reed, Katko, and Fitzpatrick took a risk. They did not know how the chamber’s Republican leaders would react.

Here’s the bottom line. Congress shouldn’t be an adult version of middle school. Our representatives should be leaning out of their cliques—not in. In America problems are solved not by smothering ideas generated outside the in-crowd, but by bringing people with different points of view together, and then letting them come to a collaborative solution.

This example of bravery represents a welcome shift in the way the House operates—and hopefully is just the first of many. Reps. Reed, Katko, and Fitzpatrick deserve everyone’s thanks, no matter whether Republican or Democrat. This is how Washington can finally break the gridlock and solve some of our country’s problems. It’s a refreshing example of how democracy is supposed to work.

Joe Lieberman, a former U.S. senator from Connecticut, is national co-chairman of No Labels, an organization working to create a new center in American politics that puts country before party.