By Christopher Cadelago and Curtis Tate
Following President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address in January, Rep. Ami Bera joined in delivering a response on behalf of the group No Labels, a bipartisan coalition he says is working to build trust, find common ground and break the gridlock in Washington.
The president needs to work with both parties in Congress, said Bera, an Elk Grove Democrat. “We don’t just need a year of action. We need a government of collaboration.”
Over the last nine months, however, the nation has seen little action and perhaps even less collaboration from Washington. In terms of successful legislation, this Congress is on track to be one of the least productive in 60 years. In California, polls show more voters now disapprove of the job their own representative is doing than approve.
It’s against that backdrop that Bera, in a tough re-election fight with former Republican Rep. Doug Ose, has made his leadership in the No Labels congressional group, called the Problem Solvers caucus, the centerpiece of his campaign. Bera says he has a record of reaching across the aisle and defying his own party leaders and the president.
“The leaders in either party are not working together and not having a constructive dialogue,” Bera said in an interview. “If it’s not happening at the top, I think it’s incumbent upon us as rank-and-file members to create that pressure and to either push leadership into starting to work together or to give them enough cover to allow that to happen.”
Democrats blame the lack of action on the GOP-run House. Republicans contend the fault rests with Obama and the Democratic-controlled Senate. The stalemate underscores the electoral challenges for freshman, minority-party representatives such as Bera, who have few legislative achievements to point to. But it also emphasizes the limitations of cooperation-based coalitions like No Labels.
No Labels members have written, filed and co-sponsored 17 pieces of legislation, organizers said. Two had language adopted as law – one to withhold pay for members of Congress if they don’t pass a budget and another to merge the electronic health records of two federal departments. Other bills seek to move to a two-year budgeting process, stop assuming automatic spending increases, get rid of duplicate agencies, and halve agency travel and replace it with video conferences.
Bera has also sought to highlight his political independence in a district whose electorate has almost as many Republicans as Democrats. He has broken with his party to block funding for California’s high-speed rail project and delay taxes under the federal health care overhaul, a law he supports but wants to fix incrementally. During the partial government shutdown, he voted for ultimately unsuccessful Republican-backed legislation to reopen parts of the federal government.
Ose, who spent three terms in Congress through 2005, served on the board of the centrist Republican Main Street Partnership. Still, he criticized No Labels for not voluntarily disclosing its donors and said he suspects its real motivation is raising money to pay its executive.
“I think No Labels is a do-nothing group,” he said. “I think Congressman Bera has established a record as a do-nothing member. And I think they are both faking it and are a perfect match for our do-nothing Congress.”
‘Small steps together’
Rep. Alan Lowenthal, D-Long Beach, said election pressures limit the effectiveness of bipartisan groups.
“Everything stops functioning as everyone gets into election mode,” said Lowenthal, a first-term member of the Problem Solvers caucus.
While the coalition has yet to solve any big, overarching problems facing the country, he said it has been useful in establishing an environment where members feel comfortable talking without constraints.
“I think it’s all about creating a foundation,” he said. “We can take some very small steps together.”
Jeremy Carl, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, said the trouble with such groups is they often try to “take the politics out of politics.” They also tend to overlook the power of outside interests.
“Elites of varying stripes love to get together in these sorts of groups and pretend that they are these rational actors and everybody else is just some wacko,” Carl said. “I am all for practical solutions, but some disagreement is healthy. Splitting the baby isn’t always in the service of good policy.”
Launched in December 2010, No Labels was the product of influential politicians and political consultants tired of the deadlock. The Problem Solvers caucus was formed to provide reinforcement to members of Congress willing to cross party lines. No Labels co-founder Mark McKinnon, a former adviser to President George W. Bush, said the original goal was to attract 50 people in a year’s time.
The idea is to create a bloc large and effective enough that leaders of both parties would no longer ignore it.
“At some juncture, you create enough momentum so the fever breaks and you have some ideas ready to go,” Bera said. “You’re not starting the conversation a year from now. You’re actually starting it today.”
The number of members is now approaching 100, prompting organizers recently to consider a cap to ensure the group remains meaningful. Instead, they are relying on what McKinnon describes as metrics of accountability, such as showing up at twice-monthly meetings and co-sponsoring various pieces of bipartisan legislation.
To achieve its seal of approval, members must support a list of goals called its National Strategic Agenda. They include creating 25 million jobs over the next decade; achieving energy security by 2024; balancing the federal budget by 2030; and securing Medicare and Social Security for 75 years. Their ambition is to publicize the list and have it become part of the national dialogue over the next two years.
“And hopefully the nominees for president will agree to the idea, and whoever is elected would formalize the process,” McKinnon said.
Ray LaHood, a former Republican congressman from Illinois who organized four bipartisan retreats during his 14 years in Congress and later served as President Barack Obama’s secretary of transportation, said little action happens in Washington without bipartisan engagement.
He was elected to Congress in 1994, a year that Republicans took control of the House for the first time in decades and began an era of clashes between then-Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., and then-President Bill Clinton.
Yet it was also a period when Congress passed big legislation, LaHood recalled, including four balanced budgets, a welfare overhaul, a tax overhaul and a six-year transportation bill.
A ‘poster congressman’
A Bera spokeswoman said it was “hypocritical, but not surprising” that Ose is criticizing No Labels – “the one group that is actually trying to get Democrats and Republicans to work together to break through the partisan gridlock.” Allison Teixeira said Ose has “relied on millions of dollars in attack ads from Washington, D.C., special-interest groups and ... voted 94 percent of the time with his party.”
OpenCongress, produced by the Sunlight Foundation, says Bera votes 89 percent of the time with his own party.
Two other freshman Democrats from California who joined the Problem Solvers are Reps. Scott Peters of San Diego and Julia Brownley of Thousand Oaks. While they have not campaigned on it to the same extent Bera has, their Republican rivals have been less critical of their associations.
GOP Assemblyman Jeff Gorell, who is challenging Brownley, said in a statement that he would join the group, which he described as consistent with his bipartisan approach.
Bera has been among the group’s biggest stars, said McKinnon, who this summer joined him on a visit with elected officials and business leaders in Sacramento.
“He is the most important member of our Problem Solvers – of the entire group,” McKinnon said. “He stepped up immediately as a freshman to take a leadership position. He was out early advocating on our big issues like No Budget, No Pay. And he immediately supported our strategic agenda, getting right into the working group. He is our poster congressman for No Labels.”
One colleague Bera met though the group is Rep. Chris Gibson, a Republican from upstate New York. Bera, a physician, and Gibson, a retired Army colonel, set out to eliminate the duplicate records being kept by Veterans Affairs and the Defense Department. Their successful language specifies that within three years the two federal departments must have a single medical records system housed on a secure server.
“That happened because Chris and I were having dinner together,” Bera said.
Peters’ opponent, Republican Carl DeMaio, said he is committed to working with anyone regardless of their label. But he questioned the purpose of signing onto any caucus that isn’t serious about making reforms.
“What are we joining in to accomplish? What is the agenda? If it’s just, ‘Hey, let’s work together … OK?,” he said. “Do we need a bunch of politicians trying to say they work together by virtue of joining a group? Or can they point to actual legislative accomplishments? The latter is far more important.”