A New Approach to Fixing Washington

If today’s Congress were a school’s student body, we’d all be looking to send our children elsewhere. The House and Senate were created by the nation’s founders to solve national problems. But like a school that’s failing to educate its students, Congress is failing to address the challenges we face as a country. How did it get so bad? And what can citizens do to turn things around?

I use the schools’ analogy because, in many ways, the institution of Congress is a bit like a failing school. In many circumstances (if not all), the reasons that students fail to learn (or that schools fail to teach) harken back to incentives. Do the kids understand why it’s worth their putting in the hard work to earn their diploma? Is there a competing incentive spurring them not to pay attention or do their homework (i.e. popularity, sports, trauma at home, etc.)? Is teacher compensation tied, in any way, to how well they perform in the classroom? In the end, are people rewarded for achieving the goals the institution is designed to achieve (namely learning)—or is something else going on?

In Washington today, something else is going on. The incentives push our legislators not to solve problems, but rather to get in good with the most extreme voices in both parties. Think about it. Thriving in Washington today has very little to do with writing commonsense legislation that both parties can endorse—it’s all about impressing people, activists, and donors on the far left and far right. Why? That’s where the bulk of fundraising comes from. That’s what heavily engaged primary voters tend to want (even if it’s the antithesis of what many general election voters actually would prefer). And it’s how politicians get invited on cable talk shows and get noticed on social media.

In essence, the incentives in Washington today do not lead our legislators to want to solve problems—the incentives push them to maximize conflict. So it’s no wonder that the House and Senate are paralyzed. But what if we created competing incentives, all designed to get Democrats and Republicans working together? That’s a project I’ve been working on for a decade through the nonprofit I lead, No Labels. And I’m proud to say that, after years of toil, we’ve begun to break through.

What’s the evidence? Take as Example A: the relatively new Problem Solvers Caucus, which No Labels inspired after years of organizing. Here’s the background. Liberals today have the Progressive Caucus. Conservatives have the Freedom Caucus. What about those leaders who believe in bipartisanship? For a long time, they had nothing, but now they do. The Problem Solvers are a bloc of 48 members, evenly split between Democrats and Republicans, that has emerged over the last three years with bipartisan solutions to issues ranging from health care, gun safety, infrastructure, immigration, and border security. [Note: You may not have heard about these solutions in part because articles about conflict get lots of clicks—but when Democrats and Republicans actually agree on something, it’s considered a bore.]

The Problem Solvers have had lots of victories. For example, earlier this year, when there was a humanitarian crisis at the border, the Senate passed 84-8 a bipartisan bill providing $4.6 billion of emergency funding. The bill then went to the House for consideration. A small group of lawmakers wanted not to take up the bipartisan bill, but instead, to bring up a bill only Democrats would support, almost guaranteeing a veto by the president and a delay for the children suffering at the border. The Problem Solvers, Democrats and Republicans together, said no, forcing a vote on the Senate-passed bill. And they prevailed. That’s what the American people want to see from Washington.

For citizens who believe bipartisanship is the best way forward for the country—and, as polling reveals time after time, that’s the broad majority of us—the challenge now is how to change the incentives across the board. How do we show members of the Problem Solvers Caucus that we’ll stand behind when, say, they’re challenged in a primary by someone who promises to vote exclusively along the party lines? How do we make sure that “bipartisans” have enough money to compete with the lightning rods on the far right and far left? How do we build a movement of people willing to share the message of bipartisanship online and in their communities?

That, I believe, is the central challenge facing America today. Like a group of adults trying to turn a failing school around, we need to turn Washington around. Solutions exist for nearly all our problems, but we need to change the incentives. Nothing will stop us if we come together. To get there, America simply needs politics as good as its people.


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