It all started in the spring of 2009. While the Obama Administration was crafting what would become the Affordable Care Act, conservatives had begun to build their opposition into the Tea Party movement. Less than a year after a presidential campaign in which both Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. John McCain had articulated a governing vision where leaders would rise above their ideological divisions, Washington seemed instead to be falling apart. The two parties were steering farther away from one another, and Americans desperate to see their leaders put problem solving above partisanship getting lost in the wash.
In response, a small group of people—Nancy Jacobson, former U.S. Rep. Tom Davis (R-VA), Atlanta City Council President Lisa Borders, Clinton White House advisor Bill Galston, former Connecticut Attorney General Clarine Nardi Riddle, and Margaret Kimbrell White—began talking about what might be done to piece things back together. They expanded their conversation to include additional leaders on both sides of the aisle: Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-CT), Gov. Jon Huntsman (R-UT), Rep. Kurt Schraeder (D-OR), and Rep. Tom Reed (R-NY), among others. What they discovered was that their discussions repeatedly came back to the same questions:
- Was there a way to bridge the growing chasm separating the two parties?
- Could an outside group create incentives to prompt the nation’s leaders to put country above party?
- Could the emerging online landscape provide ground to organize the nation’s political center?
Working with the others, Jacobson decided to build an organization devoted to answering those questions. In 2010, No Labels was born.
No Labels’ first challenge was to develop stronger relationships with members of Congress. So Jacobson and her team began setting up meetings with members from both parties, eventually inviting Democrats and Republicans—many of whom had never had a substantive conversation with their colleagues across the aisle—to forums designed simply to get people talking about how they might work together.
Soon, the No Labels team realized that conversation wasn’t enough—that members would only invest in bipartisanship if they knew engagement would lead to results. So No Labels began developing and releasing bipartisan policy ideas, several of which were considered at separate congressional hearings. The organization’s first big success was a campaign to promote the simple idea that if Congress isn’t able to pass a working budget, members of Congress should not receive their salaries. “No Budget, No Pay,” was born, was implemented as part of a 2013 budget deal, and No Labels continues today to push for its permanent adoption.
Policy development then became the first leg of No Labels’ three-legged strategy, articulated through a whole range of idea books, opinion pieces, and issues forums through the years. The second leg, begun after Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-NJ) was elected to Congress in 2016, was to inspire and support the bipartisan power base in the House of Representatives now known at the Problem Solvers Caucus.
Working hand-in-hand with Republican Rep. Tom Reed, the Problem Solvers became a force to be reckoned with in 2017 and 2018, developing bylaws designed to give the same sort of voice groups on the far left and far right claimed by working together. After long, arduous nights of negotiation, the Problem Solvers emerged publicly with the only bipartisan fix for health care, and then a range of bipartisan solutions on gun safety, infrastructure, and immigration and border security. And when House rules prevented their bipartisan bills from getting consideration on the House floor, they successfully lobbied to have the rules changed, a success that prompted The Washington Post to praise No Labels and the Problem Solvers for taking the “heat” required to make the change happen.
The third leg of No Labels’ mission center on citizens action and the organization’s enduring commitment to combatting the influence divisive primary campaigns have on American politics. When Democratic leaders live in constant fear of challenges from the far left and Republican leaders live in constant fear of challenges from the far right, all the incentives point leaders away from bipartisan problem solving. But if citizens get involved, organizing in support of bipartisan leaders and standing up for them in primary elections, new possibilities will emerge for progress. In that spirit, No Labels works actively to promote the grassroots, and to steer support for problem solvers on both sides of the aisle.
Since the organization’s founding in 2010, all the forces pulling the parties apart have gotten stronger. But with the foundation No Labels has already established—our ideas, our million-plus supporters, our connection to members of Congress—we’re developing a viable counterweight to the political impulse toward tribalism. A decade ago, no one could have imagined the Problem Solvers Caucus would have so much influence, or that No Labels would be the thriving grassroots organization it has become. The journey continues as the mission to burnish the dynamism of American democracy becomes ever more crucial. We hope you will join us.