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October 21, 2014

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Yes to No Labels

Here are words I don’t often get to type: There is good news from Washington.

Last Thursday, about 70 members of Congress braved brutal heat to stand in the shadow of the Capitol and pledge their allegiance to work together amid a climate of hyperpartisanship.

They gathered under the banner of No Labels, a nonpartisan nonprofit that strives to remove compromise from the list of dirty words. When I participated in the group’s launch 2 1/2 years ago, I joked that I had attended my first political protest, which was, appropriately, on a college campus (Columbia). But I didn’t have to carry a sign, sleep in a tent or get locked up.

It was a demonstration against gridlock caused by rigid ideology and party identification, and the headliners that day included New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (an Independent); Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa (Democrat); U.S. Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Joe Manchin, D-W. Va.; Newark Mayor Cory Booker (Democrat); and former Florida Gov. Charlie Christ (Republican). Their desire to re-establish consensus-building was not well-received among those whose livelihood depends on the continuation of a divide. The cynicism came from the left and right. Frank Rich wrote in The New York Times:

“The notion that civility and nominal bipartisanship would accomplish any of the heavy lifting required to rebuild America is childish magical thinking, and, worse, a mindless distraction from the real work before the nation.”

To George Will it was all just “gaseous rhetoric.”

In the intervening time, No Labels has set about organizing supporters in congressional districts across the country while enlisting elected officials willing to embrace civility and compromise. Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman (Republican) and Manchin are now the co-chairmen of No Labels. On Thursday, the group assembled its congressional “Problem Solvers” — Republicans and Democrats from the House and Senate who come together regularly to try to bridge the gap. In front of more than 500 people on the Capitol grounds, about 70 of the 81 members of this caucus pledged to compromise. (Full disclosure: My role was to introduce them.)

Six members from Pennsylvania have joined, five Republicans (Charlie Dent, Mike Fitzpatrick, Patrick Meehan, Scott Perry and Glenn “G.T.” Thompson) and one Democrat (Chaka Fattah).

Fitzpatrick lamented the “frustrating” change in Congress he has seen in just the past few years.

“I was here, then I was gone for four years, and I came back. I noticed the left had gotten further left and the right had gotten further right and the ... unwillingness of those fringes to listen to others and respect their opinion,” he told me.

The regular meetings of the No Labels congressional members have already been productive. Under the heading “Make Government Work,” they have hammered out nine proposals to cut government waste and inefficiency, which have now been introduced in Congress. One calls for withholding congressional pay in the event Congress can’t make spending and budget decisions on time. Another would enact biennial budgeting. A third would promote energy efficiency in federal buildings.

While they’ve yet to solve meaty issues, such as immigration, at this stage, we’ll take their collaboration as a start.

Sens. Evan Bayh, D-Ind.; Olympia Snowe, R-Maine; and Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., have all left the Senate recently, partly out of frustration with the intransigence of the body. Coincidentally, I spoke to each last week and was amazed at the similarity of the frustration they expressed.

“Unfortunately, it is true that the middle in the U.S. Senate is shrinking, and the moderates, the independents,” Lieberman told me. “It’s become a much more partisan and much more ideologically rigid body. I was privileged to serve for 24 years in the Senate; I had some great and satisfying experiences. The last two years were by far the least productive ... and not just in my feeling, but I think fewer bills were adopted the last few years than in any session for seven decades.”

His frustration is borne out by the data. The National Journal reports that, in 1982, most (58) members of Senate fell somewhere between the chamber’s most conservative Democrat and most liberal Republican. Today, zero members fill that space. In this year’s analysis, and for the third year in a row, no Republican member of the Senate had a more liberal voting record than any Democrat — just as no Democratic senator had a more conservative voting record than any Republican. That leaves those of us in the middle without representation.

That is why it’s great news that 81 members of Congress want to chart a new path. But their willingness to work together now needs support from the part of the electorate that wants them working together but which has all too often ceded the debate to the loudest voices who perpetuate the divide in their own self-interest.

Michael Smerconish writes for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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