Bipartisanship is still possible

Having heard so much about hyper-partisanship and gridlock in Congress, you may be surprised to learn that there are regular meetings in the Capitol between Democrats and Republicans that are civil, respectful and even fruitful. Not only do these meetings include members from both parties, they include members from both the House and Senate.

I've had the privilege to attend a number of these meetings as both an observer and a facilitator, and I'm here to report that the situation in Washington is not as hopeless as we're often led to believe.

These monthly meetings are sponsored by the nonpartisan group No Labels, where I have served as vice-chair for a number of years. No Labels' civic activists urge our elected officials to focus on the concerns of mainstream Americans, and resist the pull of ideological purists on the hard left and right.

I've been impressed and encouraged by the number of lawmakers, from both parties and both chambers, who use these meetings to engage with each other and try to find common ground on pressing issues. On more than one occasion I've heard members say it is one of the few (or even only) times they have had a productive meeting with someone from another chamber or another party.

That's a sad commentary. It tells us why it's so important to create opportunities and spaces like this for members of different parties to engage with each other directly, away from choreographed press conferences where partisan diatribes are so common.

These meetings' participants–like No Labels' supporters–know that in our checks-and-balances system of government, we can't enact even simple laws without bipartisan cooperation. It's nearly impossible, because neither party can accumulate the super majorities they would need to pass bills without help from the other side.

As White House chief of staff to President Bill Clinton, I saw these truths up close. President Clinton would have been unable to achieve major legislative accomplishments such as the Family and Medical Leave Act, the Brady Bill, or the landmark NAFTA trade bill without bipartisan support. NAFTA, in fact, passed the House with support from 132 Republicans and 102 Democrats.

This is almost unheard of today. But the point isn't just finding enough votes to somehow pass a bill. It's how the bill passes, and the public's sense of the bill's legitimacy and support.

Big landmark legislation that passes with virtually no help from the minority party is likely to remain a target of partisan attacks long after it is enacted. And there's a good chance the minority party will repeal the law when it returns to power (which history teaches us is inevitable). Bipartisan legislation, by contrast, has lasting legitimacy.

The most promising signs of bipartisan compromise in today's Congress is embodied in the House Problem Solvers Caucus, a key player in the monthly meetings. The caucus' 24 House Democrats and 24 Republicans have endured criticism and even retaliation from their party leaders and colleagues for their willingness to work across party lines to resolve difficult issues. And they've gotten results.

Last summer, for instance, much-needed humanitarian aid for the southern border crisis was blocked by House partisan ideologues until the Problem Solvers banded together to end the roadblock. And earlier this year, the Problem Solvers forced a change in House rules that now makes it harder for party leaders to quash bipartisan legislation they dislike.

No Labels helped create the Problem Solvers Caucus, and now it's trying to expand this results-oriented bipartisan spirit in the Senate. That's the purpose of the regular bicameral bipartisan meetings in the Capitol. No Labels recently announced its “Get in the Room” campaign, which calls on citizens to urge their elected officials–especially senators–to attend these meetings.

I've spent a lot of time in and around government. I'm struck by the fact that bipartisan achievements occur much more often in state legislatures than in Congress. There's no reason that Congress can't also focus on ordinary people's needs more than ideological agendas. These types of pragmatic problem-solving gatherings are essential to reclaiming the legitimacy Congress once had with the American people.

NAFTA could be a great example. As someone deeply involved in its passage more than two decades ago, I strongly agree it is time to modernize the pact. I hope this can happen on a bipartisan basis, and given the recent positive signals from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Rep. Richard Neal and others, it appears possible.

Poll after poll shows that most American voters want to see their lawmakers getting things done and working on issues that directly impact their lives, regardless of party affiliation. Senate and House members can't do that if they don't talk to each other in meaningful and productive ways.

Please urge your elected officials, literally and figuratively, to get into the room.

Mack McLarty serves as a vice chair at No Labels. He previously served as White House Chief of Staff, Counselor to the President, and Special Envoy to the Americas during the Clinton Administration.

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