Talk about political ambition.
At a time of such bitter partisanship — lawsuits and recounts for the 2020 presidential election; control of the U.S. Senate hinging on two run-off elections in Georgia; and a closely divided U.S. House of Representatives — can you imagine trying to negotiate legislative compromises and bipartisan public policy results?
But as the ideological breach has grown, so, too, has an unlikely bipartisan force in Washington called No Labels. Over the years, the organization has built a base of federal legislators focused on compromise and getting things done across the partisan aisle.
A Big Hill to Climb
According to the group’s website, No Labels is “a groundbreaking movement led by Americans who embrace the new politics of problem solving and are collaborating to find commonsense, nonpartisan solutions to our toughest challenges.”
The organization was envisioned in 2009 by former Clinton-era veteran Nancy Jacobson, former U.S. Representative Tom Davis (R-VA), then-Atlanta City Council President Lisa Borders, and Clinton White House advisor and Wall Street Journal columnist Bill Galston, among others, as a way to bridge the divide between the two parties. It was formally founded in 2010 by Democrats and Republicans concerned that increasingly hardened disagreement was incompatible with effective solutions during the global financial crisis. Key early leaders included Senator Joe Lieberman (D-CT), Governor Jon Huntsman Jr. (R-UT), and Representatives Kurt Schrader (D-OR) and Tom Reed (R-NY).
And in 2020 and beyond, their work is more needed than ever.
Unlike previously, when the Senate was divided 50–50, and a “power-sharing” arrangement was established for committee chairmanships and votes, the partisan split in Congress today is not a close bunching between the center-right and center-left. Instead, the Republican Freedom Caucus and the Democratic Congressional Progressive Caucus are now the dominant forces in the U.S. House, and they are more polarized than ever. These caucuses are the two significant groupings of sincere but hardened ideologues — rooted in divergent views of American history — that influence the economic and social agendas of the two parties.
Each party is polarized within its ranks, too. Although Democrats lost seats in the upcoming 117th Congress (2021–2022), reducing their House majority, their left-wing continued to gain power with the defeat of moderate, seasoned legislators by younger, more progressive additions to the so-called “Squad.”
In this political environment, therefore, it will take some extraordinary finesse for a “lame duck” Congress to pass even the mandatory legislation that keeps our nation paying its bills.
At a minimum, Congress must pass 12 appropriations bills and the National Defense Authorization Act.
No Labels is undaunted by the odds and is stepping into this breach.
A Problem Solving Approach
Seeking to “bridge the growing chasm” between (and within) the two political parties and “create incentives for leaders to put country above party,” No Labels has worked to create a counterweight to dysfunction and stalemate.
For starters, in 2017 No Labels supported the creation of the Problem Solvers Caucus in the House of Representatives. Split evenly between Democrats and Republicans, the 48 members of this caucus pledge not to campaign against each other and to listen to each other through weekly calls and meetings. These shared norms build respect through sincere communication and produce the trust necessary for the give-and-take of creating legislation.
Notably, Problem Solvers Caucus legislators are not required to give up their party loyalties or passionate ideological commitments. What they believe, however, is that moving to “yes” may achieve more of their individual and party policy goals — even in compromise — than remaining in permanent “no.”
Founder and CEO Nancy Jacobson told the Journal that “No Labels inspired the creation of the Problems Solvers Caucus in the House and is now urgently at work on building a companion forum in the United States Senate. We call it the ‘bicameral.’ As long as we have leaders willing to embrace both sides, focus on the future, and move on from the past, there is huge potential for a national ‘reset’ at this moment in time, much needed by the country.”
To support the Problem Solvers Caucus members, No Labels created a national movement of business leaders and activists who are tired of the extreme partisanship coming out of national politics. No Labels initiatives include frequent conference calls with thought leaders and journalists, a citizen’s toolkit, and a Youth Congress to inspire more support for its nonpartisan goals.
Ryan Clancy, No Labels’ chief strategist on Capitol Hill, notes that the biggest obstacle faced by those who come to Washington, D.C. is to pursue reasonable public policies that help their constituents rather than play party politics. This is confounded by the consolidation of power in the hands of party leaders, who often seem more interested in passing “message” bills their members can campaign on instead of developing bipartisan legislation that can be signed into law.
And so, acting as a bloc and rejecting extreme partisanship, the Problem Solvers have in recent years played a key role in budget negotiations, debt ceiling compromises, infrastructure spending ideas, immigration reform, Southern border humanitarian funding, health care drug pricing, and, this year, the (still delayed and disputed) additional COVID-19 stimulus relief package.
And so, acting as a bloc and rejecting extreme partisanship, the Problem Solvers have in recent years played a key role in passing legislation.
Problem Solvers Caucus members pledge to vote together once they achieve a broad bipartisan consensus. The caucus has become a permanent working group, though much larger than its ad hoc predecessors, such as the Gang of Eight that former Senator John McCain (R-AZ) led. The White House and congressional leaders are well aware of the Problem Solvers Caucus bloc of votes, which often helps to “center” partisan negotiations.
Clancy believes that “when members of Congress stick together as [a] cohesive voting bloc, they can have immense influence. 218 votes are required to pass a bill in the House and if leadership needs your votes to get a majority, and a bloc of members is willing to use their votes as leverage, they will get a lead seat at the table in shaping a bill.
“Unfortunately, members of the Problem Solvers Caucus have faced negative feedback for sitting outside the larger ideological camps in both parties. Some have lost committee assignments for refusing to toe the party line. Others have faced primary election challenges from the right or the left explicitly due to their willingness to be bipartisan. In recent years, pragmatism has been punished and extremism has been rewarded. This is the incentive structure that No Labels is working to change.”
But the No Labels movement continues to grow. Problem Solvers Caucus leaders now include independent-minded legislators, like Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) and Representative Josh Gottheimer (D-NJ), who are building reputations as legislators who want to get the people’s work done. And the movement continues to address pressing issues: the recent Supreme Court nomination battle and the threats by some Democrats to “pack the court” inspired No Labels to support the idea of lengthy term-limits for Supreme Court justices.
A Movement Toward Compromise
Despite the work of the Problem Solvers Caucus, the confrontational nature of electoral politics has led many Americans to worry that citizens, too, are irredeemably polarized.
But Jacobson disagrees. She points to a recent Wall Street Journal article, which reveals that most citizens are not as extreme as firebrand right-wing or left-wing politicians and many internet political personalities present. Firmly believing the tide is turning away from the ideological camps and toward the problem-solving camp, Jacobson asks, “Isn’t the zeitgeist of the moment that people want problems solved?”
Perhaps so. But it’s always fair to refresh our reading of James Madison and the Federalist Papers. The American founders knowingly created judicial review, presidential vetoes that can only be overturned by congressional super-majorities, and the cooling saucer of the Senate against the heat of legislation from the more activist House.
Brookings scholar and No Labels co-founder Galston agrees that the constitutional framers “feared concentrations of power in any one institution (let alone a single individual) as the road to tyranny. They designed a system of divided powers to safeguard liberty, not to promote efficiency. They saw lengthy deliberation as the key to balanced, sustainable legislation. Our Constitution was designed for stability, not speed.”
But Galston cautions that “the Founders did not anticipate, and would not have liked, our current situation, in which a system of checks and balances has degenerated into multiple veto points and gridlock. They did not design our [C]onstitution to function with a deeply polarized and mutually mistrustful party system. And they did not believe that institutions built to address the people’s problem could endure indefinitely if they lost the power to govern.
“With the political parties closely as well as deeply divided, neither can force the other to give way. The failure to work together means a continuation of the fighting and gridlock that have undermined the people’s trust in government. For this reason, it is essential that the parties relearn the art of cooperation and compromise, which is what No Labels was created to promote a decade ago.”
Clancy is optimistic that there is a rising momentum among the American people against the brutality of winner-take-all political warfare. He argues that “for years, the American public has been demanding bipartisan problem solving from Washington, but our leaders have refused to give the people what they want. But now, Washington’s new political math demands it. The implication of this new legislative math is clear: In 2021, Washington will either solve problems on a bipartisan basis or they won’t solve them at all.”
If the next President wants to be successful, he might choose to rely on the model of cooperation offered by No Labels, who are supporting the Problem Solvers in their focus on a COVID-19 relief package, immigration reform, infrastructure and health care as their top policy agenda items for the new Congress.
Every bit as determined to achieve results through compromise, consensus, and collaboration as their partisan colleagues are committed to their respective principles and purity, No Labels appears poised to grow and play a key role at the center of American politics.
Larry Greenfield is a Fellow of The Claremont Institute for the Study of Statesmanship & Political Philosophy.