Column: No Labels gets congressional dysfunction right
“No Labels.” Even the name is annoying. For one thing, it’s a label. There’s no branding quite like anti-branding, which in this case is even perched atop a slogan: “Not left. Not right. Forward.”
It reminds me of nothing so much as the cartoon character Kang’s stump speech from “The Simpsons: Treehouse of Horror VII”: “My fellow Americans. As a young boy, I dreamed of being a baseball, but tonight I say, we must move forward not backward, upward not forward, and always twirling, twirling, twirling toward freedom.”
The problem, of course, is that Americans disagree about which direction is forward. Is it toward universal health care? Or away from it? Toward policies to curb climate change? Or away from them? Toward more rights for gay and lesbian couples? Or toward a constitutional amendment enshrining the primacy of traditional marriage?
Political reform groups like No Labels, Unity 08 and Americans Elect tend to buy into the most pernicious myth in politics: that the answers are easy and obvious, and that all the political system needs is a firmer commitment to common sense, bipartisanship or “the American people.” These groups don’t just deny the very real arguments that divide our politics, they take themselves out of the game of offering solutions. They leave everyone else to do the hard work while they collect accolades for offering a future beyond division and bickering and ugliness — and reality.
But last week, No Labels surprised me. They released an agenda that did the impossible: proposed a plausible path for moving in that most elusive direction — forward. They did it, unexpectedly, by refusing to suggest that they themselves knew which direction ultimately is forward.
The group’s essential insight is that the American political system has stopped working for the left and the right — not to mention for the middle, wherever that may be. The basic architecture of the executive and legislative branches has remained unchanged since the country’s founding. The rules that govern Congress have been updated more regularly, but the last major overhaul was in 1975. Think of how much the country has changed since 1975. Think of how much the political parties have changed since 1975.
The 1970s, though a tumultuous time for the country, were still relatively irenic for the U.S. Congress. The Republican Party still included a large contingent of Northeastern liberals. The Democratic Party still had its Southern conservatives. The two parties, in other words, were ideologically diverse, and thus forced to work together.
A decade earlier, Medicare, a full government takeover of the health-insurance market for senior citizens, had cleared the Senate with a two-thirds majority and a substantial number of Republican votes. Not long after, Republican President Richard Nixon proposed a universal health-care law far to the left of anything President Barack Obama and the Democrats considered in 2009. Oh, and he signed the Clean Air Act, too.
The U.S. political system was built for consensus and, in that period, the country more or less had it. That’s not to wipe the slate clean. There were bitter elections and Red baiting, along with Nixon’s Southern strategy and angry clashes over Vietnam. But there were also numerous occasions when service to the nation’s political institutions trumped partisanship. Republicans joined Democrats to censure one of their own, Joseph McCarthy, on the Senate floor. Democrat William Fulbright used the chairmanship of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to oppose a Democratic president’s handling of Vietnam. And Republicans joined Democrats in exposing Watergate crimes and reforming the campaign-finance system.
Politics did not stop. But in Congress, in particular, it calmed. Political scientists have developed models to test congressional polarization, and the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s were notable for the moderation of the two parties.
The ‘80s, however, weren’t. That’s when party polarization accelerated. In the ‘90s, the rise was even faster. In the 1994 election, Republicans all but completed their sweep of the South, which dragged their party further to the right. Since 2000, polarization has only gotten worse.
American politics, in other words, has changed dramatically over the past 30 years. American political institutions have not. They’re built for consensus in an age of extreme polarization. There were more filibusters in 2009 and 2010 than in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s combined. Congressional Republicans almost forced the United States to default on its debt in 1995 and 2011. That would have been inconceivable in the middle of the century.
Enter No Labels. Rather than confine themselves to wishful thinking about a third-party candidacy or endless scolding over partisanship, its members have come out with a robust agenda for congressional reform.
Some of the items on the agenda are symbolic at best. Holding bipartisan monthly meetings and seating Democrats and Republicans together in Congress isn’t likely to usher in a new age of bipartisanship. Members of Congress are grown-ups responding to real pressures within their parties, and real demands from their most engaged constituents. They don’t need more play dates with the other side. But you know what? More play dates with the other side aren’t likely to hurt anything, either. So why not?
Some of the items on No Label’s agenda would transform the workings of sclerotic and dysfunctional institutions. Nominations to executive or judicial positions, for instance, would get an up-or-down vote after 90 days. If the federal budget was late, members of Congress wouldn’t get paid. Filibustering senators would actually have to do the Mr.-Smith- Goes-to-Washington thing and hold the floor of Congress by talking. No more filibustering without actually working for it. Oh, and filibusters could only be mounted against the passage of a bill — currently, the motion to move to debate is frequently filibustered, which means the filibuster is used to choke off debate rather than protect it.
When voters give power to one party or another, that party should be able to staff the government and enact enough of its policies for voters to be able to judge the results and hold the party accountable. That’s the theory under which our political system works: Good outcomes are rewarded with election victories, and bad ones punished with defeat.
Right now, voters give power to a political party, that party gets obstructed, then voters hold them accountable for the results of obstruction on the floor of, in most cases, the U.S. Senate. Because most voters don’t follow the ins-and-outs of congressional procedure, they simply assume that the majority is driving the decisions and blame them for whatever happens. Accountability, in other words, is breaking down.
That’s bad for both parties, and it means that, ultimately, whether you think the nation would be better off going to the right or the left, neither party is able to move the country forward. No Labels, to their credit, has made a good start on a solution.