No Labels, a nonpartisan group that values compromise over principle, is betting it can harness enough pressure from voters to persuade Congress to follow its lead.
Composed of high-profile Democrats and Republicans, No Labels takes no position on any issue, advocating only that Congress forge consensus and move quickly to address problems that require legislative action. The organization claims that a majority of voters endorses this approach, contending that the hardened policy disagreements dividing Democrats and Republicans are driven by vocal, partisan minorities and narrow interest groups.
"We're trying to promote and encourage a process that achieves consensus," said Republican strategist Mark McKinnon, a No Labels co-founder and former adviser to President George W. Bush. The urgency to do so, McKinnon added, is abundantly clear in the wake of the collapse of the Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction, which he described as "a complete breakdown in Washington due to hyperpartisanship."
Believing an overhaul of Congress' parliamentary procedures would diminish partisanship on Capitol Hill and grease political compromise, No Labels next month will unveil a package of recommended rules changes for the House and Senate. The organization also is set next summer to unveil a legislative scorecard to monitor gridlock and track Members' votes based on adherence to its rules overhaul agenda, joining its partisan counterparts in that practice.
But even if Congress responds favorably to No Labels' "Make Congress Work" rules reforms, and implements some or all of them, many political professionals who track voter attitudes and behavior expect little to change. These strategists argue that the political and issue divisions that characterize Democrats and Republicans in Congress are a direct reflection of the split partisan electorate that sent them to Washington.
This is particularly true, Democratic and Republican operatives agree, given the contentious issues presently up for debate, including tax and entitlement reform. The super committee negotiations failed because Democrats and Republicans have stark differences of opinion on those issues and were loath to risk angering voters at a time when Congress has record-low approval ratings. Democrats were hesitant to embrace changes to Medicare and Social Security; Republicans were equally resistant to raising taxes.
"Voters want to see compromise, but they want that compromise to achieve the goals they like," a Democratic pollster said. "While the dysfunctional process in Washington upsets voters, fixing the process isn't itself the cure. Voters ultimately care far more about results than process."
A Republican consultant who advises House and Senate candidates said No Labels is drawing the wrong conclusions from the voters' disgust with Washington and the political process and misreading the makeup of the independent voter.
"People like No Labels are valuing amorphous concepts like consensus above more tangible concepts like philosophy," this GOP strategist said. "Their biggest problem is that the so-called center is not homogenous. The center is lumpy, with one independent as different from the other as they both are from partisans."
The group might have miscalculated, but the individuals behind it are experienced political operatives and former Members. In addition to McKinnon, the founders of No Labels include ex-Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), former Rep. Mike Castle (R-Del.), ex-Rep. Tom Davis (Va.), who also served as chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) and former Rep. Al Wynn (D-Md.), among others.
According to McKinnon, No Labels boasts 180,000 members in all Congressional districts, and the organization's goal is to mobilize 500,000 people nationwide to pressure the House and Senate — through petitions and direct Member contacts — into implementing its Make Congress Work rules changes in the 113th Congress. McKinnon, who was an adviser to Democrats before signing on with Bush in the 1990s and with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in the 2008 presidential campaign, conceded the effort would be difficult but was undaunted.
"If it was easy, they would have done it already," he said.
Should No Labels experience any success in moderating Congress' agenda, expect partisan advocacy groups to respond. These organizations reject the charge that they are defending minority interests, let alone that they are responsible for any dysfunction on Capitol Hill. The liberal group Progressive Change Campaign Committee disparaged No Labels and its goal of fostering political compromise.
"No Labels apparently thinks voters would support cutting their own grandma's Social Security and Medicare benefits, raising their kids' college tuition debt and giving new tax cuts to Wall Street banks if it was labeled a grand 'compromise' by out-of-touch politicians of both parties," PCCC spokesman Adam Green said. "That's why No Labels has no real grass-roots membership or support."