January 14, 2013

When the group “No Labels” debuted two years ago, they were mocked as “naive and patronizing,” and for good reason. No Labels blamed “both sides” for congressional dysfunction when Washington’s problems were the obvious result of the Republican Party’s plunge into extremism. Indeed, Republicans would use 2011 to lurch from crisis to crisis, first with the threat of a government shutdown, later with a promise to default on the nation’s debt if President Obama didn’t agree to deep spending cuts.

Unable to build any real influence, No Labels spent most of the last year out of the public eye. But with another debt ceiling stand-off on the horizon, and hyper-partisanship — again — on the national agenda, the group is back. This morning, in an event featuring former Utah governor Jon Huntsman and West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, No Labels relaunched itself as a pragmatic, “problem-solving” caucus aimed at uniting legislators from both sides.

The group has also unveiled several proposals for building more cooperation among lawmakers. They include a plan to deny pay to Congress until a budget is passed, requiring an “up or down” vote on presidential appointments, filibuster reform, regular fiscal reports to Congress, monthly bipartisan meetings of Congress, bipartisan seating in Congress, and a British-style “question time” for the president.

Some of these, like the change to confirmation procedure, are good ideas. Most are just gimmicks. And none of them address the core problem facing American politics: A broken Republican Party. As long as the GOP is opposed to compromise and prone to brinksmanship, there’s little chance Congress will escape its current gridlock, absent another period of unified Democratic government (or large-scale institutional changes). Indeed, if No Labels were serious about fixing American politics, it wouldn’t waste time on congressional procedure at all. Instead, it would devote its time and resources to promoting moderate and conservative Republicans, with an eye toward people who can work constructively to solve problems.

It’s understandable that centrist-minded organizations would want to avoid explicit partisan affiliations. But focusing on the Republican Party isn’t partisan — it’s accurately diagnosing the problem. If No Labels wants to be effective, at all, it has to take that step.

Jamelle Bouie is a staff writer at The American Prospect, where he writes a blog.