Feb. 12, 2016

No Labels Has Many Good Ideas, and a Bad One

This is House budget week, and with it comes the strong possibility that Republican leaders will bow to the demands of their die-hards and try to alter the deal reached in the Budget Control Act last year that ended the impasse on the debt limit and set caps on discretionary domestic and defense spending.

A GOP budget that insists on spending levels lower than that deal will mean déjà vu all over again, threats of a shutdown on Oct. 1 — great timing, that — at minimum another round of contentious, energy-sapping bargaining over highly charged issues and another set of headaches for Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio).

Through all of this, public approval of Congress continues to reach new lows, although we are getting pretty close to rock bottom. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is fond of saying Congress is reduced to support from blood relatives and paid staff. How long will they stay on board?

With public contempt for Congress (and Washington, D.C., generally) at such highs, it is not surprising that groups that are trying to change things are gaining traction.

One of them is No Labels, which hopes to change the culture from one dominated by shouting and incivility to something less contentious. No Labels has a number of impressive sponsors and allies, including former Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), major policy figures such as former Comptroller General David Walker, top flight scholars such as Bill Galston of the Brookings Institution and major political actors such as Nancy Jacobson and Mark McKinnon.

The group came out recently with a 12-point plan to “make Congress work” and scored a hearing last week in front of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee that focused on some elements of its agenda.

Many of the ideas are good ones, and many have been discussed at length in this space. Those include significant filibuster reform that would streamline the process, up-or-down Senate votes within 90 days for presidential nominees and the kind of scheduling reform (three weeks on, one week off each month, with Congress in session 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday) that I have long advocated.

No Labels also calls for bipartisan seating at major Congressional events, monthly bipartisan gatherings, a bipartisan leadership committee, a pledge to take no pledges except the oath of office and a question period for the president, a la the parliamentary system.

Most of these are good ideas, although most would not be game-changers. Changing the highly charged, tribal politics we have now will not be easy. But one can be skeptical of the magic power of some structural reforms and still support them. And these ideas at least are designed to create a better and stronger Congress that fits what the framers had in mind.

But No Labels lost me when it decided to lead with another idea — the “no budget, no pay” one that was the primary focus of the Senate hearing and has become a rallying cry for the group.

It is working in one sense: The idea has gained traction and given more attention to No Labels than anything else the group has done.

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