January 19, 2020

Bipartisan Congressional Caucus Seeks Common Ground

At the podium, Rep. Josh Gottheimer with members of the Problem Solvers Caucus. Photo courtesy of the office of Rep. Josh Gottheimer.

With the partisanship in Congress these days, it often seems as though the two parties can’t agree on anything. However, there is a bipartisan group of Congress members called the Problem Solvers Caucus. The caucus seeks common ground, and the members work together to find solutions to many of the issues facing this country.

I spoke with several Jewish members of the caucus regarding Problem Solvers and their roles in it.

The caucus’ Democratic co-chair, Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.), said that one reason he decided to run for election in 2016 was because “I felt that the division was too great and members of Congress in general were spending too much time screaming and shouting versus governing and getting things done. And as someone who came from the private sector, one of the things that had really frustrated me [was] there wasn’t enough time spent on actually looking for places where you could find common ground.”

Gottheimer said his experience in the private sector taught him that “you’re not always going to get what you want but the key was getting most of what you want and moving forward. So when I got to Congress, I knew about this group called the Problem Solvers. It had existed in a different form at the time. And then a group of us got together and I got to know [N.Y. Rep.] Tom Reed, who is now the Republican co-chair. … we sat down together with other members and said, ‘Why don’t we try to do this differently?’ Why don’t we make this more formal, and we’ll get together every week and, say, when we get to 75 percent agreement on something, we’ll all try to stand together … .”

The group tries to be politically balanced. To that end, the ratio of Republicans to Democrats is as balanced as possible. “We agreed not to campaign against each other,” Gottheimer said. “We agreed that we would meet every week, and that we would try to work on the toughest issues and try to solve problems and find solutions that we could agree on.” 

Gottheimer is proud of the caucus’ accomplishments, and hopes to get more issues on the congressional floor for a vote, such as the United States, Mexico and Canada Agreement. “We ended up getting a lot done our first two years — more than any of us thought we’d get done,” he said. “We took on issues like health care and immigration reform, and criminal justice reform, which we got passed, and the opioid crisis [on which] we got legislation passed. And we got legislation passed on school safety and guns. Ultimately, in this Congress, we agreed to only support a speaker who would be willing to help change the rules to allow for more bipartisan governing, and we got that through.”

“It can take 50 or a hundred hours of working together, but the bottom line is we don’t just walk away.”
— Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.)

One major procedural change the caucus pushed was the “Break the Gridlock” rules package that passed the House in January. “The most significant rule so far has been the 290 rule, or the consensus calendar: When you get to 290 Democrats and Republicans co-sponsoring legislation, you’re guaranteed a debate and vote on the House floor,” Gottheimer explained. “What most people — and I didn’t know this before I got to Congress either — don’t realize was that you could have legislation with 300 co-sponsors. In fact, last Congress, there were more than 33 bills with 300 co-sponsors out of 435, and you couldn’t get it to the floor for a debate or vote. It could get stuck in the committee or someone was able to hold it up.”

Some of the debates and votes the new rules package has paved the way for include eliminating the Cadillac tax, an anti-BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) bill, a 9/11 victims compensation fund and stopping animal cruelty.

Gottheimer stressed that each Problem Solver Caucus member puts in serious time and effort to accomplish the group’s goals. “It can take 50 or a hundred hours of working together, but the bottom line is we don’t just walk away. We stay at the table and try to find that common ground. We meet late at night, often from 9 o’clock ’til 1 o’clock in the morning. We put white boards up and we work, because that’s what the American people expect us to do, and what I’d expect from my member of Congress, and what I always expected from my member of Congress, growing up.”

While there may be defined party lines, Gottheimer said the members trust one another and have formed relationships. “We disagree on plenty. We’re proud Democrats. We’re proud Republicans,” he said, “but at the end of the day, our goal is the same, which is to put the country first and define those places where we can agree.”

Rep. Elaine Luria (D-Va.) also spoke about how she became involved with the caucus and her role in it. “One of the things that was important to me coming into Congress was that I really wanted to make sure I established relationships across the aisle. And in addition to a summer camp friend who happens to be in Congress with me (who’s a Republican), I wanted to really be able to find a way to work on a lot of nonpartisan issues, things that we could get done. And that was just really important to the Problem Solvers as the leading caucus that’s doing that,” Luria said.

Luria spoke about the role of the caucus in combating BDS, including its role in passing a resolution condemning the movement. “That is another piece of legislation that we achieved a sufficient number of co-sponsors,” Luria said in reference to H.R. 246, a resolution opposing efforts to delegitimize the State of Israel and the global BDS movement. “We endorsed that, as a caucus, as something that we wanted to support in a bipartisan way. As you know, that came to a vote and passed with an overwhelming majority, so we’re very strongly behind a strong relationship with Israel, and standing up against the BDS movement is one of the things that we’ve prioritized as a caucus.”

Within the caucus, Luria and Gottheimer have worked closely to address concerns about rising anti-Semitism. “A lot of us are very dismayed to see the rising anti-Semitism, and some of the comments that have been made, even by some of our own fellow members of Congress. We’ve stood up against anti-Semitism, and I never thought personally that the first time I would speak on the floor of the House as a new member of Congress would be to stand up against anti-Semitism, specifically about the allegations of dual loyalty,” Luria said.

“Myself and Josh Gottheimer, who’s one of the co-chairs of Problem Solvers, have combined efforts to stand up in many different ways, including writing a letter to the speaker requesting an apology for some of those comments, which had been responded to. I think we’ve been a very strong voice in a bipartisan way to stand up against anti-Semitism,” Luria explained.

For Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.), the Problem Solvers Caucus spoke to his personal beliefs. “When I first made the decision to run for Congress, I scanned some of the caucuses in both parties and immediately upon discovering the Problem Solvers Caucus’ work, I was compelled, because it’s so aligned with my personal ethos, which is getting things done through collaboration, not through segregation,” Phillips said.

He noted that the caucus “eases polarization among members of Congress as individuals. I would say that that story isn’t being well disseminated. Very few in the country are aware of how much collegiality there is, how much cooperation, how much mutual interest in focusing on process and regular order that exists. And I do think we’re making a difference.”

“We resolved to try our very best to come up with solutions, because we recognized that if the country is to wait for one party or the other — which might be in power at any given time − to achieve results, we’d be waiting forever.” —  Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.)

Regarding the issue of immigration, Phillips said, “In my district, I was able to achieve a wonderful result for members of our Liberian community here on the DED program, which is Deferred Enforced Departure, and through connections in the Problem Solvers. And ultimately, with the White House, we were able to inspire the president to sign a one-year extension on a program that affords them legal status here in the country.”

Phillips recently led a delegation of 16 Democratic and Republican members from the Problem Solvers Caucus to the border. He said that what he saw was “shocking and horrifying, and I resolved to do whatever I could to provide humanitarian aid that I thought was necessary and most importantly, inspire others to join me. …”

He added, “In Washington, I think the best way to open up people’s minds is to first open up their hearts. And seeing what we saw in McAllen, Texas, I think was a step in that direction. And we resolved to try our very best to come up with solutions, because we recognized that if the country is to wait for one party or the other — which might be in power at any given time — to achieve results, we’d be waiting forever.”

“I never thought personally that the first time I would speak on the floor of the House as a new member of Congress would be to stand up against anti-Semitism, specifically about the allegations of dual loyalty.”
— Rep. Elaine Luria (D-Va.)

Phillips noted there is going to be an Immigration Working Group within the caucus to focus on these issues. “We just returned from McAllen right before the recess started, and it is there that we resolved to do something, so we’re forming that task force right now and creating a construct for how we proceed, and intend to have our first meeting upon our return to Washington the week of Sept. 9.”

Among the issues he plans to discuss are how the United States allocates its foreign-assistance resources, the asylum adjudication process, ports-of-entry infrastructure, the facilities in which detainees are being held, immigrants affected by the Deferred Action  for Childhood Arrivals policy (DACA), and the current estimated number of 10 to 12 million “undocumented people” living in the U.S.

Gottheimer noted that the Problem Solvers Caucus has been able to achieve a lot by members of Congress working together. “It’s a phenomenal group of members, I think, that are really committed to getting things done, ” he said. “And I think if we spent less time screaming and more time being productive and governing, we’d be able to accomplish everything from fixing our infrastructure to lowering fixed drug costs and helping grow our economy. That’s what I hear at home, and what this country wants, and certainly what my constituents want.”

Zachary Leshin is a writer and former congressional staffer based in Washington, D.C.