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The time for radical centrism has come

Something extraordinary just happened.

On Friday Congress passed, and the President signed, a spending bill based on a bipartisan budget agreement reached just over a month ago. The bill passed both houses of Congress primarily with support from a long slumbering group: Centrists.

{mosads}No one was happy:

  • While Republicans pushed for and obtained an $80 billion increase in defense spending, 25 members of the Freedom Caucus in the house voted “nay” because the legislation didn’t defund sanctuary cities or planned parenthood and because it strengthened background checks for those looking to purchase guns;
  • While Democrats pushed for and obtained a $64 billion increase in domestic spending, many members refused to approve a bill that didn’t solve immigration issues like the “Dreamers” and the Northeast’s massive (and essential) Gateway Project or serious problems with the Affordable Care Act exchanges.
  • Members from both sides decried the spending legislation for increasing the deficit without offsets, an issue that was exacerbated by a $1.5 trillion increase in deficit spending resulting from the tax bill and remains to be addressed.
  • Virtually everyone was unhappy that the final legislation, over 2000 pages long, was finalized under pressure of a government shutdown and without adequate time for most members of Congress to read and digest it.

Dysfunction? No! At last, the rusty gears of Congress seem to be moving again.

At No Labels, our goal is to fix Congress.   Our plan is to support leaders who seek solutions, rather than political talking points – who want to run the country, rather than just run for office.   We seek bipartisanship because it’s the only path to putting politics aside for the benefit of the country, creating lasting legislative solutions, grounded in data and experience. Bipartisan solutions discard the political spoils approach to governance in favor of work that addresses the needs of all of America.

Yet bipartisanship, until recently, seemed to have disappeared.   Congressmen who run in districts heavily skewed to a single party are more vulnerable to extremists from their own party than competition from other.   As a result, the extremes become more influential.

Close majorities in the House and Senate ordinarily mean both parties need to work together. But the influence of the primaries means that legislators can’t tack to the middle.   That means that even a vote or two is the difference between success and failure.   This results in fracture and dissent.

Witness the efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act and the rushed, single party tax bill.

In contrast – look at these voting patterns on this weeks’ spending bill.

As you can see, approval of the spending bill was truly bipartisan and centrist.   The extremes of each party voted no.   The bill was forced to move to the center to obtain votes of principled moderates.   This is what Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) calls “radical centrism.”

How far we’ve come. Just a month ago, Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) was refusing to bring to the floor any legislation that was not preapproved by the White House – even if the legislation would have support from a majority of members of Congress.   In contrast, this bill reached the president against the threat of a potential veto.

Many Democrats and Republicans are coming to the realization that to win national elections they need to appeal to independent voters and voters whose values don’t necessary align with “litmus tests” and who are more practical than ideological. The middle is where national elections are won and the middle is where governance begins.

This year had its frustrations. Congressional leadership blocked bipartisan legislation supported by No Labels that would have supported the Dreamers, because it didn’t have full and immediate funding for a $27 billion border wall with Mexico. Congressional leadership also effectively blocked a bipartisan solution developed by the Problem Solvers Caucus that would have kept insurance premiums from skyrocketing under the affordable care act.  We believe both proposals could have passed if brought to the floor without the threat of a veto.

To prevent these issues, there are changes we would like to see to the rules of both houses. For example, the “Hastert Rule” requires a majority of the majority party to allow legislation to reach the floor of Congress. This rule means that even if a bill would pass Congress on a bipartisan vote, it will never see the light of day.  We would like to see the Hastert rule abandoned, and would like to see changes that require a supermajority vote to approve selection of the Speaker of the House – compelling the Speaker to take issues affecting both sides into account.

Since the start of this Congress No Labels – and the Problem Solvers Caucus we support – has continued to advance the ball.  The Problem Solvers developed bipartisan solutions from the Affordable Care Act to funding the government, and from immigration to infrastructure to guns.  

As we head into the midterm elections, we hope that both parties remember the lessons of the spending bill — that bipartisan, centrist, pragmatic, evidence-based legislation is the path that benefits us all.

Michael Fricklas is a supporter of No Labels, the former general counsel of Viacom, and a former legislative fellow for Congressman Josh Gottheimer, the Democratic Co-Chair of the Problem Solvers Caucus.

Tags Josh Gottheimer Paul Ryan Susan Collins

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