Make Congress Work!

Make Congress Work!

The No Labels Action Plan to Change the Rules and Fix What's Broken

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No Labels is a group of Republicans, Democrats and Independents who want our country to work again. Our dozen proposals to Make Congress Work! mostly don't require new laws or new spending, and they don't favor any party or particular cause. These are simple, straightforward proposals to break gridlock, promote constructive discussion and reduce polarization in Congress. They can mostly be adopted all at once when the next Congress convenes in January 2015.

12 Ways to Make Congress Work!

  1. No Budget, No Pay
    If Congress can't pass a budget and all annual spending bills on time, members of Congress should not get paid.
  2. Up or Down Vote on Presidential Appointments
    All presidential nominations should be confirmed or rejected within 90 days of the nomination.
  3. Fix the Filibuster
    Require real (not virtual) filibusters and end filibusters on motions to proceed.
  4. Empower the Sensible Majority
    Allow a bipartisan majority of members to override a leader or committee chair’s refusal to bring a bill to the floor.
  5. Make Members Come to Work
    Make Congress work on coordinated schedules with three five-day work weeks a month in DC and one week in their home district.
  6. Question Time for the President
    Provide a monthly forum for members of Congress to ask the president questions to force leaders to debate one another and defend their ideas.
  7. Fiscal Report to Congress: Hear it. Read it. Sign it.
    A nonpartisan leader should deliver an annual, televised fiscal update in-person to a joint session of Congress to ensure everyone is working off the same facts.
  8. No Pledge but the Oath of Office
    Members should make no pledge but the pledge of allegiance and their formal oath of office.
  9. Monthly Bipartisan Gatherings
    The House and Senate should institute monthly, off-the-record and bipartisan gatherings to get members talking across party lines.
  10. Bipartisan Seating
    At all joint meetings or sessions of Congress, each member should be seated next to at least one member of the other party.
  11. Bipartisan Leadership Committee
    Congressional party leaders should form a bipartisan congressional leadership committee to discuss legislative agendas and substantive solutions.
  12. No Negative Campaigns Against Incumbents
    Incumbents from one party should not conduct negative campaigns against sitting members of the opposing party.
 
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No Budget, No Pay

The Problem

The most basic responsibility Congress has is deciding how much money the government takes in and how much it spends. But Congress has passed its spending bills on time only four times since 1952. In the last 14 years, annual spending bills have been submitted an average of four months late.

The upshot is more wasteful and inefficient government. When Congress fails to pass spending bills on time, it relies on temporary spending measures called continuing resolutions – which provide the money federal agencies need to operate based roughly on what they spent the previous year. What continuing resolutions don't provide is any chance for Congress to debate the most fundamental question of all:

Why are we spending this money?

Congress spends first and asks question later when it should instead be spending only after figuring out what goals it's trying to achieve.

Meanwhile, Congress' constant stop-and-go budgeting creates havoc... READ MORE

Meanwhile, Congress' constant stop-and-go budgeting creates havoc for government agencies, and the citizens who depend on them.

What if you had to decide whether to buy a new car or go on vacation without having any idea what your salary was or even how much money you had? That would be almost impossible. But this is the situation facing federal agencies that often don't know how much money they're getting or when it's coming. This uncertainty has severe consequences. Congress' failure to pass a timely budget in early 2011 led to:

  1. The Federal Aviation Administration delaying hiring of new air traffic controllers;
  2. The National Institutes of Health postponing grants for cutting-edge medical research;
  3. The Defense Department delaying critical maintenance of Humvees and cancelling research on next-generation weapon systems; and
  4. The State Department cutting staff in Iraq at the same time it was trying to manage the hand-off of civilian control to the Iraqi government.

The No Labels Solution

If Congress can't make spending and budget decisions on time, they shouldn't get paid on time either. Every government fiscal year begins October 1. If the congressional appropriations (spending) process is not completed by that date, congressional pay ceases as of October 1, and isn't restored until appropriations are completed. This is the only No Labels solution that requires a new law, which could be passed in 2012, and would take effect when the new Congress is seated.

This proposal requires a new law to be passed by the House and Senate.

UPDATE: On February 4, 2013, President Obama signed a debt ceiling extension bill that included a modified No Budget, No Pay provision that would withhold member pay in escrow if their respective chambers fail to pass a budget by April 15. No Labels supported this legislation as a critical step towards more accountable government. However, we will continue to push for implementation of our stronger No Budget, No Pay proposal, which would require timely passage of both a budget and annual spending bills and would also not allow lost member pay to be recovered once it was withheld.

COLLAPSE

Up or Down Vote on Presidential Appointments

The Problem

When our Founders gave the Senate "Advice and Consent" power over presidential appointments, they hoped it would encourage the president to appoint qualified people and avoid conflicts of interest.

Today, it's the senators themselves who seem to have conflicts of interest, with key presidential appointments routinely held up for trivial reasons or to serve the narrow interests of a single senator. In one notorious case from 2010, a senator held up over 70 presidential nominees at once to secure more federal spending for his state.

As of late 2011, more than 200 presidentially-appointed positions remained unfilled. In the last few years the directorship of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, key positions at the Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve and numerous federal judgeships have been left unfilled for reasons that have little or nothing to do with the quality of the nominees.

READ MORE

The No Labels Solution

The Senate's "Advice and Consent" role on presidential appointments is critically important, but the process no longer resembles anything close to what the Founders intended.

That's why all presidential nominations should be confirmed or rejected within 90 days of the nomination being received by the Senate. This time frame includes both committee and floor action. If a nominee's name is not confirmed or rejected within 90 days, the nominee would be confirmed by default.

This proposal require a change of House and Senate rules, which can be made effective when the new Congress is seated.

COLLAPSE

Fix the Filibuster

The Problem

Made famous by the 1939 film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and infamous by senators who used it to block civil rights legislation, the filibuster was initially conceived as a way to prevent a Senate majority from steamrolling the minority. As long as a senator kept talking on the floor, a bill could not move forward unless a supermajority of senators voted to end debate. For much of the 20th century, the Senate required a two-thirds majority vote (a device known as cloture) to break a filibuster. In 1975, the Senate reduced the number of votes required for cloture to three-fifths, or 60 of the current hundred senators.

The filibuster has been used for good and for ill, but for most of the Senate's history, it was rare, and it required members to stand up for hours on end to make their case. Neither is true anymore.

In the first 50 years of the filibuster, it was used only 35 times. In the last two years alone, it was used over 100. And senators don't even have to show up on the floor to explain themselves – just signaling their intent to filibuster effectively stalls legislation.

READ MORE

As a result, the Senate has become a place that one senator described as "non-functional," where even routine bills must now clear 60 votes. This means that 41 senators, representing as little as 11% of the U.S. population could theoretically obstruct passage of a bill supported by 59 senators representing as much as 89% of the population.

This is completely contrary to the intent of our Founders. They believed a supermajority should be required only in select circumstances including the passage of treaties, constitutional amendments and motions of impeachment.

Finally, constant filibustering gums up the Senate calendar. Every filibuster kicks off a complex set of Senate procedures that effectively brings the institution to a stop for as long as a week and prevents other critical issues from being addressed.

The No Labels Solution

Our filibuster fix is based on a simple idea: If senators want to filibuster legislation, they should actually have to explain why in public. We propose a two-part solution to reduce unwarranted use of the filibuster in the Senate:

  1. Require Real (Not Virtual) Filibusters: If senators want to halt action on a bill, they must take to the floor and hold it through sustained debate.
  2. End Filibusters on Motions to Proceed: Today, filibusters can be used both to prevent a bill from reaching the floor for debate (motion to proceed) and from ultimately being passed. If the Senate simply ended the practice of filibustering motions to proceed, it could cut the number of filibusters in half and allow more issues to be debated and voted on by the full Senate.

This proposal require a change of House and Senate rules, which can be made effective when the new Congress is seated.

UPDATE: On January 24, 2013, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell reached agreement on a modest set of reforms to the filibuster that will help make the legislative process more streamlined and inclusive of the minority party. No Labels believes this was a positive first step, but we will continue to push legislators to embrace the more ambitious filibuster reforms articulated here because we believe they are essential to a better functioning Senate.

COLLAPSE

Empower the Sensible Majority

The Problem

A not-so-hidden secret about Congress is that much of the legislation it considers is designed to embarrass the other party or score political points. Legislation can be considered by the full House or Senate only if it's first sent there by leadership or committee chairs, who often see political benefit in keeping Democrats and Republicans at one another's throats. One member says flatly, "The leaders [of Congress] often don't want us to work together."

Meanwhile, legislation that is supported by a sensible bipartisan majority often dies in a leader's office or in committee.

The No Labels Solution

READ MORE

We need to democratize decision-making in Congress to break the gridlock. If a bipartisan majority wants to get something done, they shouldn't be held back by party leaders who prefer to organize Congress into warring clans. That's why the House should allow members to anonymously sign discharge petitions, which allow a majority of members to override a leader or committee chair's refusal to bring a bill to the floor. Once a majority of members have signed, the names of the signers would be made public. Under current rules, discharge petitions are allowed, but signers are made public from the start. Members are reluctant to buck party leaders who may retaliate by pulling members off of important committees, bottling up legislation they support or withholding critical campaign help. Our reform would allow members to sign a discharge petition knowing at least half their colleagues are in the same boat with them. A similar reform could be undertaken in the Senate.

This proposal require a change of House and Senate rules, which can be made effective when the new Congress is seated.

COLLAPSE

Make Members Come to Work

The Problem

Congress needs to heed the advice of Woody Allen, who liked to say, "90% of life is just showing up." Part of the reason why Congress can't get much done is because they're not showing up in the halls of the Senate or House more than a few days a week.

Members of Congress routinely fly home to their districts on Thursday nights to meet with constituents or attend fundraisers, and they often don't return until the following Tuesday.

Former Democratic Senate leader Tom Daschle said that, "When we scheduled votes, the only day where we could be absolutely certain we had all one hundred senators there was Wednesday afternoon."

READ MORE

In 2012, the U.S. House of Representatives has scheduled only two weeks where it will be in session for five days.

The No Labels Solution

Everyone agrees Congress has a lot of work to do. We believe they'd get more done if they actually came to their offices in Washington, DC.

  1. A Five-Day Workweek: Most Americans put in a five-day workweek. So should Congress.
  2. Three Weeks in DC, One Week in the Home State or District: Instead of quick in-and- out trips home for fundraisers or hastily scheduled constituent events, members should have a full week available for working at home with constituents. They should spend the other three weeks in Washington, DC.
  3. Coordinated Schedules: A law can't pass unless it gets through both the House and Senate. If they have different schedules, as they do now, it is harder to get anything done. The leaders of both chambers should work to ensure their members are in Washington during the same weeks.

This proposal can be imposed by House or Senate leadership.

COLLAPSE

Question Time for the President

The Problem

In January 2010, President Obama attended a House Republican retreat to publicly debate the merits of the president's proposed healthcare law. For a few hours at least, the American public got to see our leaders engage and truly debate with one another.

We haven't seen anything like it since. Today the president and members of Congress can more often be found talking past one another through the media. The issues facing our country are too important to be decided by a war of partisan talking points. Let's get the ideas on the table, debate them and let the American people decide.

The No Labels Solution

READ MORE

We should take a cue from the British Parliament's regular questioning of the prime minister to create question time for the president and Congress. These meetings occasionally may be contentious, but at least they force leaders to actually debate one another and defend their ideas. Here's how it would work: on a rotating basis the House and Senate would issue monthly invitations to the president to appear in the respective chamber for questions and discussion. Each question period would last for 90 minutes and would be televised. The majority and minority would alternate questions. The president could, at his discretion, bring one or more cabinet members to the question period and refer specific questions to them.

This proposal can be imposed by House or Senate leadership.

COLLAPSE

Fiscal Report to Congress: Hear it. Read it. Sign it.

The Problem

Perhaps the chief obstacle to fixing America's finances is that no one agrees what's really on our balance sheet. When leaders in Washington debate our budget, they routinely use different baselines, projections and assumptions, which often conveniently support whatever policy they are pushing at the moment. To quote an old Scottish writer, many Washington leaders "use statistics as a drunken man uses lampposts - for support rather than for illumination."

READ MORE

The No Labels Solution

The American people deserve to know what's really happening with our nation's finances, and we believe Congress should at least be able to work off the same set of numbers. That's why every year, a nonpartisan leader, such as the comptroller general, should deliver a televised fiscal update in-person to a joint session of Congress. The president, vice president, all cabinet members, senators and congressmen must attend this fiscal update session and take individual responsibility for the accuracy and completeness of the comptroller general's report by signing the report, just as CEOs are required to affirm the accuracy of their company's financial reporting.

This proposal can be imposed by House or Senate leadership.

COLLAPSE

No Pledge but the Oath of Office

The Problem

One of the biggest barriers to solving problems in Congress is that many members literally sign away their ability to do it. A case in point: 238 House members have signed a pledge to never raise taxes. Another 110 members have signed a pledge to never cut any Social Security benefits. That's 80% of Congress refusing to even consider compromise on two of the biggest issues driving America's long-term budget deficits. Is it any wonder Congress can't balance our books?

These types of pledges have proliferated in recent years as a way for powerful interest groups to control members of Congress, and they've created a perverse dynamic in Washington. Members of Congress who stick to these rigid pledges are usually rewarded with more campaign cash and party support. Members willing to make tough decisions and think for themselves are punished with attack ads and primary challenges.

READ MORE

The No Labels Solution

It's time to cut the puppet strings that allow narrow interest groups to control members of Congress. Members should make no pledge but the pledge of allegiance and their formal oath of office.

This proposal simply requires members of Congress to individually change their behavior.

COLLAPSE

Monthly Bipartisan Gatherings

The Problem

Flip on cable news and it quickly becomes clear that Democrats and Republicans in Congress don't like each other. Even more troubling is that they barely even know one another.

One former member of Congress recalled: "I took a Democratic House member who was a friend of mine to a Republican caucus meeting and as we walked around the room, it dawned on me that no one had ever met this guy, even though he was well into his second term in Congress."

After the Super Committee failed last November, another Republican member said he couldn't have picked one of his Democratic colleagues "out of a lineup" before the negotiation process started.

Although partisanship has always been and always will be a part of Congress, there was a time when members actually made an effort to build relationships with people from the other party. Today, they're more likely to glare at each other from the comfort of their partisan bunkers.

READ MORE

It's easy to demonize and hard to compromise with someone you barely know.

The No Labels Solution

Like any workplace, Congress depends on good human relationships to function. When there are no relationships, there's dysfunction. To get members talking to one another, both the House and Senate should institute monthly bipartisan gatherings. The gatherings would be off the record and not be televised. If both sides agreed, outside experts could be invited in to brief members on topics of concern.

This proposal can be imposed by House or Senate leadership.

UPDATE: On January 14, 2013, No Labels introduced the Problem Solvers: a group of Democrats, Republicans and independents in the House and Senate who have agreed to meet regularly to build trust across the aisle. When President Obama gave his State of the Union address one month later on February 12, the Problem Solvers ranks had grown to 50, with members proudly wearing orange lapel pins to the event, announcing their commitment to “fix, not fight.”

COLLAPSE

Bipartisan Seating

The Problem

Prior to President Obama's 2011 State of the Union speech, some members of Congress agreed to leave their partisan encampments and sit next to someone from the other party during the address. The fact that this was considered unusual and even exceptional speaks volumes about the low bar that's been set for cooperation in Congress.

More often than not, seating in Congress resembles boys and girls at a middle school dance, with each side keeping an (un)comfortable distance from one another. Even the seating on House and Senate committees – which are supposed to carry out the business of government and not the business of parties – usually has Democrats and Republicans on opposite sides.

READ MORE

The No Labels Solution

It's time to curb the cliques in Congress. At all joint meetings or sessions of Congress, each member should be seated next to at least one member of the other party. On committees and subcommittees, seating also would be arranged in an alternating bipartisan way (one member would be seated next to at least one member of the other party) by agreement between the chair and ranking member. One option would be to arrange bipartisan seating in order of seniority.

This proposal can be imposed by House or Senate leadership.

COLLAPSE

Bipartisan Leadership Committee

The Problem

In 1983, President Ronald Reagan partnered with Democratic and Republican House and Senate leaders to pass a historic bipartisan bill to keep Social Security solvent for the next generation.

It's the type of cooperation no one expects to see in Washington anymore.

Even though President Reagan and Republican House leaders like Bob Michel were conservative and Democratic leaders like House Speaker Tip O'Neill were liberal, they managed to make headway on everything from entitlement to tax reform because they made an effort to build personal relationships. They met regularly to have drinks, tell jokes and ultimately, get things done.

In today's Congress, almost every meeting or get-together is partisan with legislative problem solving taking a back seat to discussion of how to stick it to the other side.

READ MORE

The No Labels Solution

Republican and Democratic leaders have allowed virtually every meeting to turn into a partisan pep rally. So they're the ones who need to help change the agenda to focus on solving real problems.

Congressional party leaders should form a bipartisan congressional leadership committee as a forum for discussing both legislative agendas and substantive solutions. The committee would meet weekly and (subject to mutual agreement) monthly with the President.

This committee would include the President pro tempore of the senate, the speaker of the house and the Senate and House majority and minority leaders. It would also include four open slots for any two members of the Senate and of the House, which would be determined by lottery on a rotating basis, each Congress.

This proposal can be imposed by House or Senate leadership.

COLLAPSE

No Negative Campaigns Against Incumbents

The Problem

Imagine one of your co-workers tries to get you fired on Monday. He fails. You keep your job. On Tuesday, you're forced to sit down with that same co-worker to figure out your department's budget for the next year. You'd probably come into that meeting bitter, angry and not exactly primed for problem solving.

This is the dynamic that exists when incumbent members of Congress actively campaign against incumbents from another party. When one member starts aggressively working for another's defeat, it destroys the trust that is so necessary to get anything done.

In years past, there were informal customs that discouraged this. For example, it was frowned upon for one party leader to campaign against a leader of the opposite party. But those customs have been ignored over the last decade, which has set off a cycle of mistrust and retribution that has been difficult to stop.

READ MORE

The No Labels Solution

When members of Congress can't work together because of personal animosity, it's the American people who suffer. That's why incumbents from one party should not conduct negative campaigns against sitting members of the opposing party. That means no appearing in negative ads, no signing nasty direct mail letters and no traveling to an incumbent's district or state to play attack dog. Members would of course be free to campaign or fundraise in support of candidates from their party.

This proposal simply requires members of Congress to individually change their behavior.

COLLAPSE

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