Has the tide turned against the political divide?

November 2, 2013

Maybe, but it’ll take effort to sustain a more cooperative mood in Washington.

If you’ve had enough of Washington, you’re in good company. A recent poll suggests that two-thirds of voters would like to “throw every incumbent” out of office.

The October government shutdown and the near-default on our nation’s debt is certainly not what most voters intended last fall when they chose to elect divided government, with Republicans controlling the House and Democrats holding the Senate and White House.

You’d think that those election results would send a clear message to Washington that voters are not enamored of either party’s agenda, and that we are looking for leaders who can seek common ground somewhere in the “sensible center.” But that is not how Washington works.

There may be, however, some good emerging from Washington’s chaos. While it is too early to start celebrating a new era of collegiality, we are beginning to see the potential for at least incremental progress on deficit reduction. Democrats like Virginia Sen. Mark Warner have put entitlement programs on the table, while Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan and other Republicans have offered flexibility on sequestration cuts and even opened the door on tax reform.

Beyond the potential for these policy changes, new voices have gained influence in Congress. Among them are moderate Republican Susan Collins of Maine and many of her female colleagues who helped create the impetus for the ultimate budget and debt deal. Meanwhile, some of the more extreme voices on the left and right have lost stature among their congressional colleagues. Both outcomes are good.

And, some key organizations that support a fiscally conservative agenda, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Minnesota Business Partnership, are telling obstructionist Republicans enough is enough. The MBP’s executive director told Minnesota Public Radio, “… I think you’ll see the business community support those who stood up and supported, ultimately, a compromise.”

But, once voter backlash fades, will these positives also be lost? Already, these voices of moderation are coming under attack from the left and right. If these small steps toward effectiveness by policymakers are to become the beginning of a longer journey, voter discontent will need to be constructively channeled. In our view, one of the most intriguing new avenues for citizen involvement is No Labels (www.nolabels.org). The group’s mission is to create “a voice for Americans, whatever their political ideology, to ensure our leaders in government will work across the aisle to solve problems.”

George Bernard Shaw once wisely observed, “Democracy is a device that ensures we shall be governed no better than we deserve.” That means that changing Washington’s wayward ways must really start with us. Among other tools, No Labels offers objective information to help voters cut through the phony arguments that come from the right and left. The goal is to organize, inform and engage Americans to be better citizens and to expect better results from those we elect to serve us.

One of the organization’s most encouraging activities is the No Labels Problem Solvers Coalition. This bipartisan coalition is composed of more than 80 members of Congress, including Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Rep. Rick Nolan.

This bipartisan coalition is offering a solid package of reforms that could save tax dollars while improving government services. One bill would eliminate duplicative and overlapping government programs. The “No Adding, No Padding Act” sponsored by Klobuchar and Rep. Kurt Schrader, R-Ore., would remove automatic inflation increases in federal agencies’ budgets, forcing them to justify requests for more money. Our favorite idea is the “No Budget, No Pay Act.” The legislation would withhold paychecks from members of Congress if they don’t pass a budget. The bill did pass earlier this year, but, sadly, lacks any enforcement teeth and also needs to be crafted in a way that overcomes constitutional concerns.

Certainly, tougher and bigger budget decisions than these will be needed to rein in our nation’s long-term debt. However, these legislators are demonstrating that bipartisan agreement can be found. It is a start.

Admittedly, most of the members of the No Labels Problem Solvers Coalition aren’t from Congress’ leadership ranks. Still, they are trying to demonstrate that in order to come together on the big issues — legislators need to first get together, know one another and trust one another. Their example of finding solutions through cooperation could teach the top congressional leaders and political bosses a thing or two.

Tom Horner is a public-affairs consultant and was chief of staff to former U.S. Sen. Dave Durenberger, R-Minn. Tim Penny is president and CEO of the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation and is a former Democratic member of Congress. Both are former Independence Party candidates for governor.



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