No Labels? A New Force in Congress?

In the last year a new ‘thing' has appeared on the scene in Washington called “No Labels.” It is a response to the political gridlock as well as personal antipathies that have stymied virtually all the crucial current legislation necessary to addressing the country's dire problems and needs. Gridlocks are not a new thing in Washington. Thomas Jefferson wrote in a letter to Elbridge Gerry, May 13, 1797: “You and I have formerly seen warm debates and high political passions. But gentlemen of different politics would then speak to each other and separate the business of the Senate from that of society. It is not so now. Men who have been intimate all their lives, cross the streets to avoid meeting, and turn their heads another way, lest they should be obliged to touch their hats.”

No Labels began with the simple idea that if members of both parties in both houses could identify themselves with No Labels and come together and look for bridges between their respective parties' positions and solve legislative stalemates, they would be responding to their constituents' wishes and doing what they had been elected to do.

A lot of people were seriously skeptical about whether that could be achieved. A year ago there were a handful of members of Congress willing to take on the “No Labels” identity. Today there are 67 — 30 Republicans and 37 Democrats –five from the Senate and 62 from the House. That means more than 12 percent of sitting members of Congress quickly came on board with this new idea. That is not a fact to sneeze at. What is it telling us and what does it foreshadow?

What it tells us is that it is now politically acceptable — particularly in an election year — for members to put some distance between themselves and their parties, which to an increasing numbers of voters is becoming attractive because both parties have become increasingly unattractive in this era of gridlock. Perhaps that is a harbinger of things to come. Yet, one of those “things to come”, is most likely NOT another party. At best, the threat of another party might inspire existing leaders to do enough to take the wind out of the sails of such an effort, but such gains would certainly be short-lived and, being driven by partisan concerns rather than substantive ones, would almost equally certainly be counterproductive.

So what is No Labels foreshadowing? Perhaps in this era of the breakdown of effective party leadership and process a new ‘thing' is emerging to take up the banner and slack in looking after the public interest — as distinct from political interests — by putting labels aside.

The nascent No Labels process has already spawned a series of truly bipartisan meetings and discussions about possible legislation and issues that are not seriously in dispute. In the process, members are getting better acquainted and even making new friendships and, more importantly, gaining valuable experience in a highly civil and productive way to conduct policy deliberations.

The real test will likely come sometime later this year when a crucial piece of budget or tax legislation is about to fall short of passage and a small group of No Labels members stand up to build a bridge to a solution with the votes necessary for passage. If that happens, it will be a big day in Washington. And, then the question of what really is this “new thing” will spring front and center. It is not too soon to begin to think that through and visualize how it could be institutionalized.

As previously noted, it is not and probably should not be a party or even a caucus. But, it could be a Super Party entity which could be comprised of members of both houses deliberately selected by their parties' leadership from the No Labels ranking to help create problem solving bridges for both parties. Membership on such a group would have to inoculate and or insulate individual members from traditional party discipline so that they would be free to perform their crucial roles.

That way the parties could both retain their traditional roles AND at the same time embrace the need for a no labels type of problem solving.

However all this plays out we all owe a tip of the hat and real thanks to the folks who have started this ball rolling.


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