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A bipartisan renaissance in the making

Not long ago, many Americans thought the nation’s cities were dying. The middle class continued to leave for the suburbs. Violent crime and drug epidemics plagued residents of downtrodden neighborhoods. Businesses closed. When, during a 1977 New York Yankees World Series broadcast, Howard Cosell famously announced, “Ladies and gentlemen, the Bronx is burning,” he gave voice to the widespread sense that the nation’s cities were in chaos.

Then something mysterious—almost magical—happened. As the nation’s economy evolved, municipal leaders embraced a series of innovative policy approaches. New ways to attract businesses, fight crime, construct affordable housing, and more. Those reforms began to have a cumulative impact. Few would have predicted in, say, 1980, that New York, Boston, and San Francisco would be the economic engines of the early 21st century. But here we are.

Today, many Americans see Washington the way they once saw our cities, hopeless and beyond repair. But at No Labels, we take a different view. Despite the headlines, we believe Congress has begun to climb out of its “Bronx is Burning” moment. In 2019, the seeds of bipartisanship have not only been planted—they’ve begun to sprout. Not everyone has noticed. The endless focus on impeachment has given many the impression that everything on Capitol Hill is unwaveringly tribal. But if you look more closely, a second picture comes into clearer relief. And it’s much more attractive and hopeful.

A Year of Progress

Recall the recent history. At the end of the last Congress, as control of the House of Representatives shifted from one party to the other, No Labels lit a torch we called The Speaker Project. The House Problem Solvers Caucus translated our vision into an initiative they labeled “Break the Gridlock,” and became the first lawmakers since 1923 to use their votes for a new Speaker as leverage to achieve reforms in the way Congress works. Caucus members were attacked relentlessly by the extremes and pressured by leadership, but they held strong, and their leverage empowered them to win major procedural concessions, which have led to major bipartisan legislative accomplishments.

Most notable among the changes was the so-called “290 Rule” which guarantees that any bill with 290 co-sponsors must get consideration on the House floor and not be bottled up in committee. Another forces consideration of amendments co-sponsored by at least 20 members of each party. A third protects the Speaker from the pressure she or he might get from members on their partisan ideological fringe. These rule reforms, combined with the courage the Problem Solvers regularly display is fueling a bipartisan renaissance. If you know where to look, you see that clearly in the record of 2019.

Last year, the Problem Solvers emerged as a force on Capitol Hill in three separate ways.

  1. They showed the political courage to push back on the extremes.
  2. They changed the power dynamics on Capitol Hill, giving early and essential momentum to important bipartisan legislation including criminal justice reform and a new trade bill.
  3. They utilized their new rule reforms to push bills that had been held in limbo for months or even years.

Political Courage

The first, and most notable accomplishment occurred right before the July 4th congressional recess. At the time, a humanitarian crisis was raging at the Southern border as federal agencies struggled to maintain adequate facilities for migrants and their children caught entering the U.S. from Mexico. To provide relief, the Senate expeditiously passed a bill that funded humanitarian aid and border security by a vote of 84 to 8. The bill then went to the House—and that’s where the trouble began.

The Senate bill was a classic legislative compromise. But rather than pass the Senate’s bipartisan bill, a group of liberal Democrats began mobilizing behind several amendments that everyone knew the Senate would not approve and President Trump was sure to veto. Hearing word that House leaders might cave to those demands, the Problem Solvers stood together and asked for an immediate vote on the Senate’s bipartisan bill. Despite anger on the far left—several of the Problem Solvers’ Democratic members faced new primary challengers in the wake of this showdown—the Caucus prevailed. The humanitarian aid made its way more expeditiously to those who needed it, and border security was funded as well.

Would House leadership have scheduled a vote on the Senate bill absent the rule changes adopted at the beginning of the year? We can’t know for sure. But what was clear was that the Problem Solvers showed remarkable resolve in the face of intense political pressure to cave. They protected those suffering at the border from becoming victims of partisan paralysis. They took a risk—and won.

Changing Power Dynamics

In a year of terrible partisan vitriol, the border funding fight may have been bipartisanship’s most public victory—but it was not the only one. In several cases, the Problem Solvers invoked their internal 75 percent rule to announce their early support for major bipartisan legislation. When almost 50 members—split evenly between the parties—unite to support something, it gets leadership’s attention.

In the House, the majority party’s leadership often resorts to a tactic of passing unpopular ideas by attaching them to bills supported on both sides of the aisle. That leads to a peculiar reality: Some of the most popular ideas are in many cases held in abeyance so that they can be used to pass legislation that most members would oppose if considered separately. This year, the Problems Solvers have repeatedly broken these sorts of logjams. They created a path for popular ideas that would have been blocked to become the law of the land.

Again, few noticed, if only because the narrative of worsening tribalism dominates the news. But when Democrats and Republicans were nearly at loggerheads on the details of a criminal justice reform bill earlier this year, the Problem Solvers Caucus’ support made clear that the negotiators needed to make a deal. Nearer the end of the year, the same dynamic was applied to negotiations over how to update NAFTA and whether to put together a comprehensive budget deal. Those were all very significant victories—and were it not for the Problem Solvers, they might never have materialized.

Putting the Rules to Good Use

The Problem Solvers managed to put the rules changes they championed a year ago to remarkably good use throughout the year. Here again, they didn’t always have to invoke the power the rules have bequeathed to them—but the threat of invocation has given them the leverage required to get a range of bills passed out of the House despite more muted support (or subtle opposition) from leadership. Most notably, the Caucus threatened to use the 290 Rule to force a vote on a resolution condemning the anti-Semitic Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel—and that pressure succeeded in allowing a bipartisan majority of the House to pass a resolution.

The background here is important. A small but vocal minority had leaned on House leaders to bottle up the anti-BDS resolution, hinting that a vote would split the majority caucus. The bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus wasn’t having it—they wanted the House to make clear that the United States stands behind Israel. So they suggested publicly that they might begin an effort to collect enough signatures to overrule any objections to consideration. The House leadership quickly responded by bringing the bill to a vote under regular order. It passed 398 to 17.

The Caucus took a similar approach in efforts to correct a provision that levied a double tax on the benefits received by victimized Gold Star widows and survivors. And, near the end of the year, they worked together to address the so-called Cadillac tax that penalizes employers who provide more comprehensive health care coverage to their employees. In each case, they didn’t have to invoke the new rules because the power they’d established at the beginning of the year gave them sufficient leverage to push bipartisan causes out of gridlock.

A Promising Future

At No Labels, we’re committed to sober analysis of what’s happening in Washington. We cannot be excessively exuberant in an age of ongoing partisan turmoil. But as those who have watched Washington for years can testify, for the first time in a long time, 2019 included substantive reasons for hope in the future.

The Problem Solvers’ success in 2019 is evidence that the cause of bipartisanship is poised for a comeback. No Labels’ success this year promises to provide momentum into 2020. Already, our 2019 efforts to establish a foundation in the Senate have begun to bear fruit, with Sens. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) working with members of the House on a bipartisan, bicameral paid leave bill. We’re not far from building a beachhead in the Senate similar to the one we have helped establish in the House with the Problem Solvers.

All of this is to say that people who yearn for a return to bipartisanship need not despair today. We are making remarkable progress. As with the shifting fortunes of America’s cities, the dynamics on Capitol Hill can be changed if we continue to do the hard work of taking steps that empower leaders committed to the cause of bipartisanship. We all have a role to play, whether center stage or behind the scenes. But everyone involved should take heart in knowing that the work you have already done is paying off. Last year has offered a glimpse of what, given some luck and a much more work, is likely to come in the not-too-distant future.

Joseph I. Lieberman, a former senator from Connecticut, is co-chairman of No Labels. 

Tags Bill Cassidy Bipartisanship Donald Trump partisan gridlock

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