Fitzpatrick, one of the most vulnerable House Republicans running for reelection in 2018, has mentioned the Problem Solvers Caucus dozens of times in candidate debates, as well as many more times in interviews and campaign ads.
To its supporters, the Problem Solvers Caucus represents what Fitzpatrick calls America’s best hope of “learning to accept people’s differences” — of finding compromises on key issues that have long eluded Congress.
But to some critics in both parties, the Problem Solvers offer little more than a thin veneer of bipartisanship that clouds rather than clarifies the stakes of the 2018 midterm elections — an election-year talking point that vulnerable incumbents can tout without accomplishing much.
Democrats in particular say that by supporting the group, members of their own party have given political cover to lawmakers with conservative voting records without forcing those same lawmakers to take concrete action to stall Republican legislation on health care or taxes. The caucus’s Republican members have on average voted in line with the White House’s position 93 percent of the time, according to calculations based on FiveThirtyEight’s vote tracker, with at least nine Republicans in the group doing so more than 95 percent of the time.
“It seems to be used right now mostly for political and campaign purposes,” said Andrew Grant, a Republican challenging Rep. Ami Bera (D-Calif.) in California’s 7th Congressional District. Bera is a member of the Problem Solvers Caucus who was ranked among the bottom third for bipartisanship in the House by the Lugar Center, a nonpartisan think tank.
Grant said months ago he called friends who work as Republican staffers in the Capitol to ask about the Problem Solvers.
“Everyone I talked to said, ‘This group has done almost nothing,’ ” Grant said.
Rep. Lloyd Smucker (R-Pa.), who has voted in line with President Trump about 96 percent of the time, has mentioned his involvement in the Problem Solvers group in every debate. More than 110 House Republicans — nearly half the caucus — have more bipartisan voting records than Smucker, according to the Lugar Center.
“[Smucker] can use it to say, ‘Look, I’m working across the aisle,’ even though he is 100 percent in line with Donald Trump, doesn’t hold any moderate positions and takes a ton of corporate money,” Jess King, his Democratic opponent, said of the Problem Solvers group. “People truly don’t understand what it’s all about, and it keeps coming up.”
Rep. Tom Reed (R-N.Y.), who has voted with Trump about 97 percent of the time, is the Republican co-chair of the caucus and uses it as his “number one talking point — like it’s obsessive, all the time; all the time,” said Tracy Mitrano, his Democratic opponent.
The Buffalo News, in endorsing Reed, cited his work in the Problem Solvers as a key justification, as did the York Daily Record in Pennsylvania when endorsing Smucker. Smucker and Reed both voted for the plan to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and they voted for Trump’s tax law last fall, two highly contentious and overwhelmingly partisan votes. Although they have more moderate voting records than the bulk of their caucus, many Republicans in the Problem Solvers caucus supported both efforts.
In addition to supporting partisan agendas, the Problem Solvers’ campaign talk about their efforts dramatically outweighs their accomplishments, the group’s critics say.
The Democratic and Republican co-chairs of the caucus pointed to five bipartisan packages the group had unveiled — only one of which, a measure to combat the opioid epidemic spearheaded by Rep. John Katko (R-N.Y.), has been signed into law. The Problem Solvers Caucus also supported several smaller but significant packages that were signed into law, including funding for mental-health programs under the bipartisan Cures Act.
A spokesman for Reed also pointed to a prison reform proposal that has earned the support of Van Jones, a CNN commentator and former president Barack Obama adviser, and White House adviser Jared Kushner. The measure faces an uncertain fate in the Senate.
The Problem Solvers also expressed faith in a set of proposed House rules changes they unveiled this summer to Break the Gridlock, vowing as a bloc to withhold their votes for any potential House speaker who did not agree to adopt the rules. The rule changes would weaken House leadership’s control over which bills get a vote, forcing to the floor bills co-sponsored by more than 290 members.
“We are demonstrating that we are real, that we are willing to step up on hard issues, and that you need to negotiate with us,” Reed said in an interview. “If you want to have bipartisan commitment from this group, you need to have us there at the takeoff of the legislation negotiations. That’s where our leadership is learning.”
But many members of Congress and their aides expressed skepticism, sometimes bordering on ridicule, that the organization amounted to much more than a useful talking point. Several argued the legislation cited by Reed and Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.), the group’s Democratic co-chair, would have passed easily — with or without the Problem Solvers' support.
“They are just roadkill in the legislative process,” Jim Manley, who was an aide to former Senate majority leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), said of the Problem Solvers.
“Their track record is nonexistent,” said Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.), a liberal member of Congress. “It’s more of a political cover operation than real legislative operation — there’s no policy product.”
Even those sympathetic to the group’s overall mission acknowledge they may have little to show for it.
“Have they solved any problems?” asked Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio). “They’re yet to have made any progress with any real legislation — it’s not there, at least not yet.”
"Most of the big fights have been along starkly partisan lines, so it’s difficult to gauge the effectiveness of this group so far,” said Michael Steel, who served as press secretary for former House speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and is now managing director of Hamilton Place Strategies, a D.C.-based consulting firm. “But finding common ground is important for the future of the Congress and this country, and this group is a good place to start.”
Founded in 2013 as an offshoot of the nonpartisan group No Labels, the Problem Solvers Caucus has touted itself as the cure to a polarized Washington.
The Problem Solvers group kicked off on the Hill with a series of meetings between members of Congress and outside experts, including David Brooks, the conservative columnist with the New York Times; Steven Mnuchin, the Wall Street banker who is now the president’s treasury secretary; Bill Gates, the billionaire founder of Microsoft; Harvard academic Michael Porter; and Jon Huntsman Jr., the former Republican governor of Utah.
The Problem Solvers’ work accelerated in 2018, as they produced several bipartisan packages that have not been signed into law on immigration, health care and gun control. The group meets for tacos and beers with no media for several hours at least once a week around 9 p.m., Reed said. Several of the members say their closest friends in Congress are in the Problem Solvers Caucus.
No Labels and its affiliated super PACs have thrown millions of dollars into the 2018 elections on behalf of Problem Solvers candidates, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a money-in-politics watchdog. A group tied to No Labels spent about $1 million helping Rep. Daniel Lipinski (D-Ill.), a member of the Problem Solvers Caucus, fend off a left-wing challenger in a district often regarded as more liberal than Lipinski.
“Everybody has left the center for dead — nobody has tried to organize or support the individuals, ever,” said Nancy Jacobson, founder and chief executive of No Labels.
Mitrano, the Democrat challenging Reed in New York’s 23rd District, downplayed the effectiveness of the Problem Solvers label, saying the issue of gun control posed a more serious political problem.
“It’s his number one talking point, but how many problems have they solved? The number is zero,” Mitrano said. “Even Reed’s Republican base doesn’t believe it.”
In Pennsylvania, Fitzpatrick talks so often about the Problem Solvers Caucus that voters are often confused about which party he belongs to, said Scott Wallace, his Democratic opponent.
Fitzpatrick does have one of the most moderate voting records among House Republicans, according to the Lugar Center, but he has voted with Trump about 84 percent of the time, including on the tax overhaul, rolling back some regulations on the financial sector and abortion restrictions, according to FiveThirtyEight. (In an interview, Fitzpatrick described the FiveThirtyEight methodology as flawed and limited.)
“I’ve talked to voters who listen to him and then say, ‘Oh, I thought he was an independent,’ ” Wallace said. “It is totally ridiculous the way he hides behind this caucus, as if it is a solution to partisan gridlock.”
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated a ban on bump stocks had become law. That measure has not been signed into law.