Problem Solvers on the Cusp of a Breakthrough

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In the wake of last week’s election, there is a story that needs to be told.

It’s a story most Americans haven’t heard but it is one that provides a sliver of hope that the endless dysfunction and growing tribalism in our politics just might be reversed.

There is no shortage of explanations for why American politics has gone off the rails in recent years. Gerrymandered districts. Fragmented and partisan media. Too much money. A widening cultural divide between rural and urban America.

But the root of our escalating partisanship in Washington is quite simple to explain.

Virtually every incentive in our politics – the money, votes, grassroots energy and enthusiasm –pushes our leaders apart and punishes those who aim to work together. To win elections, politicians need party and interest group support and contributions, and that too often deprives them of their independence.

That was, until this past Tuesday. Over the past two years, supporters of No Labels – a national movement of Democrats, Republicans and independents working to unite our divided country –raised more than $15 million to independently support several current and aspiring members of the bipartisan House Problem Solvers Caucus, in both primary and general elections.

It was the first effort of its kind, and it worked: 23 of those 28 candidates supported by the No Labels-allied campaign won their elections on Tuesday and they did so on the strength of a message that was focused, above all, on their willingness to work with both parties to solve our country’s toughest challenges.

Look at Pennsylvania’s 1st District, where Republican Brian Fitzpatrick (pictured) eked out a narrow victory. Or Arizona’s 1st District, where Democrat Tom O’Halleran did the same. They were but two of the candidates who, for the first time, had the outside support of a group that wasn’t demanding they toe the party line or adhere to some single issue litmus test. All that was expected of these candidates was to do something tens of millions of Americans are clamoring for:

To prove, in words and deeds, that you’re willing to put the interests of your country before party and to try to forge solutions with leaders from both sides.

In the next two months, the Problem Solvers Caucus – which features an equal number of members from both parties — has a singular opportunity to do something transformational for our Congress and for America.

Congress – by almost every measure – is historically unproductive and dysfunctional and the arcane rules that govern it are often to blame.

A recent investigation by ProPublica found that power is increasingly concentrated in the hands of leadership, which in turn depends on the support of the most extreme members of their parties to stay there. Committees play less of a role in shaping legislation than ever before. And this Congress set a record for the number of “closed rules,” when leaders eliminate any chance for rank-and-file amendments to legislation.

This summer, the Problem Solvers Caucus released a reform plan called “Break the Gridlock” to fix this disastrous state of affairs. The reform package calls for a number of rules reforms – such as forcing priority consideration of any bill with super majority support and eliminating the “motion to vacate” provision that gives undue influence to the extremes – that would once again empower rank-and file members who want to work across the aisle and give bipartisan ideas a fighting chance in the next Congress.

In a typical Congress, “Break the Gridlock” might be the kind of well-intended reform plan that would win plaudits from good-government types only to be ignored by leadership. But this next Congress can be different. Democrats have a relatively narrow majority and it appears the Problem Solvers might have the leverage to compel a new speaker to accept these rules changes.

As reported by The Hill newspaper on Nov. 7, 14 House Democrats – all of them current or likely future members of the Problem Solvers Caucus – are vowing to withhold their votes for speaker unless the candidate agrees to overhaul House rules. There are also seven Republicans who won re-election and vowed to trade speaker votes for an overhaul of the House rules.

Although some races are still to be decided, the latest projection has Democrats with a 229-206 majority, giving Democrats only 11 votes above the 218 threshold required to elect a new speaker.

If these Problem Solvers hold together, they’ll have the numbers to prevent anyone from becoming speaker until they get their rules reforms. There is a precedent for this happening too. In 1923, a group of progressive Republicans demanded rules changes of the Republican majority and when leadership refused, the progressives forced nine ballots for speaker. Leadership folded and the progressives got their rules changes.

Now, the Problem Solvers have a similar historic opportunity. They’ll undoubtedly get pressured from powerful forces in their respective parties to stand down. But now, for the first time, they can proceed with the confidence that there is a robust political operation that is large, growing and capable of standing behind leaders who are willing to do the hard things.

Americans have never been hungrier for real leadership and for a Congress that can actually solve the challenges they care about. The Problem Solvers have an opening to repair our broken Congress and restore American’s faith that our government is capable of doing the people’s business.

Let’s hope they seize the moment.

Joe Lieberman, a former U.S. senator from Connecticut, is national co-chairman of No Labels, an organization working to create a new center in American politics that puts country before party.

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