How One Political Start-Up Is Trying to Fight Gridlock
By some measures, America’s political parties are as deeply divided today as they have been in more than a century. Despite some internal fissures, each party has grown steadily more homogenous in recent decades. Most conservatives have left the Democratic Party, and the Republican Party, which once featured a sizeable nonconservative contingent in the Northeast, has become a liberal-free zone.
Citizens don’t need advanced degrees in political science to notice the consequence of these shifts. As the parties have polarized, getting to “yes” — even on routine matters — has become increasingly difficult. Noncontroversial nominees for executive and judicial office are held up for months or years, and the budget process is broken. Important pieces of legislation, such as President Obama’s signature health care bill, are enacted without a single vote from the opposition party, generating years of controversy and complicating the task of implementation. And the issues that will shape our future — such as immigration, tax reform, and public investment — are left to languish. As political leaders bicker endlessly without result, Americans’ trust in their governing institutions has plummeted to record lows. By undermining our capacity to hew a steady course and speak with a single voice, such polarization diminishes our credibility and influence around the world. Surveys show that the American people are aware of our diminished role and don’t like it.
That’s why No Labels was created. It’s essentially a political start-up designed to break the gridlock and foster a new politics of problem-solving. In the beginning, the founders debated the kinds of questions every start-up faces: What should our product be? How do we know there is sufficient demand for what we plan to supply? What will we need to get started and to sustain our activities through development? And so on.
Early discussions were all over the map; people who shared a sense of alarm about a polarized national government disagreed about both the diagnosis and the remedy. Some felt that we should focus on the center of the political spectrum; others, that the language of ideological positioning was obsolete and that we should work on changing the relationship between the political parties. Gradually, however, a core of agreement emerged. First, we would not begin the way so many reform groups do — by creating a policy agenda and trying to persuade elected officials to embrace it. Instead, we would begin by restoring trust between the political parties to address the dysfunction that was impeding policy action across the board. Second, we would not seek to bridge the liberal/conservative divide by rallying moderates and centrists. Instead, we would open our doors to liberals, conservatives, and everyone in between — to anyone, regardless of ideology and partisanship, who wanted to solve problems, not score points. Third, we would avoid the issues — such as campaign finance and redistricting — on which other well-established groups had been laboring. Instead, we would strive for changes in Congress and the presidency that could be made more rapidly and with less controversy. And finally, we would be more than a Washington office. We would build a national citizens’ movement to change Washington. In effect, we adapted Mao’s dictum — “From the countryside to the city” — for our own purposes.
No Labels staffed its lean, low-budget headquarters with talented young people who were willing to walk through walls in return for very modest compensation. The atmosphere was part underdog political campaign, part Silicon Valley venture.
No matter how good the product, it needs a good launch. So we set the audacious goal of bringing a thousand citizens, from all 50 states, to New York City for a day-long meeting to discuss the problem (political dysfunction) and the solution (a national movement of citizens dedicated to a more productive style of politics). As commitments poured in, our hopes rose. Citizens streamed into New York. One couple from Alaska drove for three days without a break to attend the meeting.
Developing a grassroots movement was our first post-launch task. We used a variety of platforms, including not only social media but also face-to-face meetings organized by interested local leaders, to expand our visibility and make our case to citizens around the country. It quickly became apparent that a key assumption — namely, robust demand for our product — was correct. Many of the meetings were standing room only, and traffic to our website steadily increased. Before the end of 2011, hundreds of thousands of citizens had affiliated with No Labels. It now stands at about half a million.
Our second task was to put some flesh on our bare-bones concept. We agreed that Congress was the epicenter of our political dysfunction, so we began there. In consultation with scholars, veteran Congress-watchers, and congressional staffers and members, we identified a dozen ways to make Congress work. The ideas fell into three categories. Some were rules changes — to narrow the scope of filibusters, to streamline Senate consideration of the president’s nominees, and to enable bipartisan majorities to force leaders to bring bills to the floor. Some were simple operational changes to improve efficiency — for example, requiring members of Congress to work five-day weeks in Washington and coordinating House and Senate schedules. And some, such as bipartisan leadership committees and monthly bipartisan meetings of members, sought to reestablish a measure of comity across party lines.
Our most potent proposal addressed budgeting. In 1974 the passage of the Congressional Budget Act (CBA) established an orderly timetable for completing appropriations bills before the beginning of each fiscal year. By 2011, it had been more than four years since Congress had completed even the first step in that process — passing the budget resolution that would serve as the blueprint for the dozen different bills into which discretionary appropriations are divided. Instead, Congress lurched from one stop-gap measure to another, usually ending with an “omnibus” bill that few members ever saw prior to voting for it.
So we proposed a bill called “No Budget, No Pay.” It embodied a simple, easily understood principle: if Congress didn’t complete the CBA budget process before the start of the fiscal year, members’ pay would halt and would not resume until they had finished the job. And they wouldn’t get back pay.
Understandably, the reception among elected officials was mixed. But surveys showed that more than 90% of citizens supported the bill. After the veteran Congressman who had stifled the bill in his committee was defeated in the 2012 election — by a rival who supported the bill — Speaker of the House John Boehner delivered a ringing speech in favor of his own version of No Budget, No Pay. It soon passed, and the Senate had little choice but to go along. By the end of January 2013, the bill was on its way to the White House for the president’s signature. The citizens-based approach had scored its first success.
Grassroots mobilization was only part of the larger strategy. Once we had gained credibility, we needed to recruit a bipartisan group of national elected officials who favored a less confrontational style of politics. We weren’t sure that we would find a critical mass of legislators who would be willing to venture forth from the friendly confines of their respective party caucuses. But as it turned out, many members of Congress shared their constituents’ misgivings about our hyperpolarized politics but didn’t know what to do about it.
For many, No Labels provided the first opportunity to get to know people from the opposing party. The group grew quickly; by the fall of 2013, more than 80 elected officials had become members — most of them from the House, where we’d focused our initial efforts.
The early meetings helped build trust across party lines, but soon members were chafing at the bit to do some real work together. They started by addressing government waste and efficiency. After a period of expert briefing, the members agreed on nine proposals, all of which were introduced in the House and the Senate with bipartisan cosponsors. One proposal, which for the first time coordinates health records from the Department of Defense with those of the Veterans Administration, has already been signed into law. Although no one would claim that these modest measures were transformative, they did represent an initial proof of concept — that renewed trust could foster cooperation across party lines on matters of substance as well as tone.
The project that now dominates our time rests on a sad fact: our two most recent presidents were elected to bring us together but ended up intensifying our divisions. George W. Bush pledged to be a uniter, not a divider; Barack Obama became a national figure in 2004 with his passionate claim that we are not Red America and Blue America but one United States of America. Both were sincere; both failed. What went wrong?
Simply put, both presidents wanted to unite the country, but they didn’t tell us how they would do it, because they didn’t know how. The “how” is what No Labels is setting out to provide.
Our hypothesis is that the hyperpolarization of American politics will not end until the parties can develop a shared frame of reference. That doesn’t mean agreement on specifics, of course: parties exist to represent differing points of view. But it does mean, at least, consensus on the major challenges we face and on some broad principles for addressing them.
To promote this shared frame of reference, we’re now in the early stages of developing a national strategic agenda. Through a process of broad consultation, backed by survey research, we have identified four important national goals that enjoy support across party lines:
• Creating 25 million jobs over the next decade
• Stabilizing Social Security and Medicare for the next 75 years
• Achieving U.S. energy security by 2024
• Balancing the federal budget by 2030
To promote a more reasoned and reality-based discussion of these goals, we have laid out the key issues and numbers for each goal and summarized some existing legislative proposals for addressing them. Between now and October 2015, we will be working with elected officials at every level of our federal system as well as private sector leaders, policy experts, and citizens groups to create a wider menu of effective means to these ends. We will know that we’ve succeeded when the Democratic and Republican nominees spend the general election arguing about the best ways of achieving the objectives that the American people care about the most.
Some of our efforts, such as helping the campaigns of candidates who endorse the national strategic agenda, have proved controversial, and no doubt others will as well. This is inevitable. We are not aiming for incremental change; we are trying to disrupt patterns that are deeply entrenched in our politics. It is predictable that individuals and institutions with a vested interest in the status quo will resist disruption, just as taxi companies do when confronted with threats such as Uber. What sustains us is the conviction that we are advancing a cause that the people endorse and the country needs.
There’s no guarantee that we will succeed; that’s what it means to be a start-up. But with the help of people who are willing to invest their time and resources and take some risks, we’ll give it our best shot.