There's a leadership crisis in Washington.
Although we've re-elected President Barack Obama, much of the president's success depends on what happens in Congress. If we want our country to move forward over the next four years, we need Congress and the president to put political point-scoring aside and work to solve our country's most pressing problems.
The most immediate challenge is the fiscal cliff, which threatens to push America back into recession, unless Democrats and Republicans in Congress — working with the White House — can cast aside partisan interests in favor of a balanced solution. Each side will have no choice but to support some things it doesn't like and take political risks. But with the fiscal cliff looming at the end of the year, time is running out and tough choices are necessary.
It has become clear that fundamental change is needed to make Congress work more efficiently and effectively to address this cliff and more of America's most pressing problems. Given how little time our representatives spend actually working together, it's no surprise that breakthroughs are few and far between. House members spend almost as much time in their home district or traveling as they do legislating. Instead of working at problem solving in Congress, they are focused on partisan infighting and planning the next campaign.
In order to truly solve problems, lawmakers need to come out from behind their bunkers and start talking with colleagues on the other side of the aisle. It's happened before. President Ronald Reagan and Democratic Speaker Tip O'Neill put partisan interests aside to shore up Social Security's finances. A Democratic Congress and President Dwight Eisenhower agreed to build the interstate highway system. More recently, President Bill Clinton worked with Republicans in Congress to reform welfare programs.
We can't wait for Washington to get to work. That's why No Labels — a growing grassroots movement of about 600,000 Democrats, Republicans and independents who favor a new politics of problem solving — has put together two common-sense action plans — Make Congress Work! and Make the Presidency Work! These plans would improve communications across partisan lines, modify or eliminate rules that promote gridlock, and establish new timetables for taking action. Most importantly, they would foster a new environment of leadership in Washington.
Among the ideas is the “No Budget, No Pay Act,” which would cut pay to members of Congress when spending bills aren't passed on time. So far, the bill has bipartisan support from 92 co-sponsors in the House and Senate. Make Congress Work! would also require agreement by the president and Congress to base budget talks on a common set of fiscal facts from an independent expert, regular meetings among the leaders of both parties, quick Senate votes on presidential appointees, revised Congressional scheduling so lawmakers spend more time at work, and updated filibuster rules so the Senate can vote on legislation in a timely fashion.
No Labels' proposals aren't the only ideas for fixing government. Changes in primary elections have been adopted in some states in hopes of eliminating partisanship. Some propose reform of campaign financing; others would restrict gerrymandering, the practice of designing the boundaries of congressional districts for partisan advantage. But those ideas involve very lengthy and often state-by-state action — too time-consuming for the immediate governing emergency we face today. And worse, within today's political status quo, many of those kinds of measures would never receive a hearing.
By contrast, most of the No Labels ideas can be implemented quickly by congressional leaders themselves without difficult legislative fights or the intrusions of lobbyists and special interests. Some require agreement by the president, which can happen overnight.
We need leadership that is willing to step up for the country even when it means breaking with comfortable habits. As concerned citizens, it's also our job to speak out by encouraging leadership and rewarding the problem-solvers who are willing to make the challenging decisions. Americans who want change need to phone, write, email and tweet their legislators to get moving.
Partisan gamesmanship in Washington is at its worst, but we can't stand idly by while our nation's problems continue to grow. To help direct change in the right direction, concerned citizens must speak out so that political leaders feel the heat. A good place to start is NoLabels.org, where citizens (and lawmakers) can read our plans and join the movement to put America's interest ahead of party politics.