A recent Public Policy poll finds Americans have a higher opinion of dental procedures, used car salesmen and traffic jams than they do of the U.S. Congress. Politicians can take some comfort: they did score higher than the Kardashians.
An advocacy group is trying to shake up the status quo on Capitol Hill by finding ways for Democrats and Republicans to work together — and a pair of California lawmakers are on board.
Congresswoman Janice Hahn first heard of No Labels from a staffer, who heard about it from a friend.
"They were at a Bar Mitzvah together and she was talking to my chief of staff about No Labels," Hahn recalls. "And my chief of staff said, 'This sounds like my boss.'”
The Democrat from San Pedro came to Washington from the non-partisan world of L.A. City Hall. Hahn says about the only time Democrats and Republicans get together in D.C. is at their annual Congressional baseball game.
"We don’t share meals together, we don’t caucus together, we don’t socialize together," Hahn says.
So Hahn started attending Congressional prayer breakfasts, where at least for an hour a week, she says she can "sit in the same room with Republicans and figure out who they are, what makes them tick, and see if a friendship might evolve that down the road might be useful in breaking the gridlock."
Hahn and about two dozen other members of Congress from both parties have joined No Labels. The two-year old organization calls itself a “citizens movement of Democrats, Republicans, and everything in-between, dedicated to promoting a new politics of problem solving.” (As a social welfare non-profit, No Labels doesn’t have to disclose its donors.)
Bill Galston, a senior fellow in governance at the Brookings Institution, is one of the original co-founders of No Labels. He says Congress has two choices: continued gridlock, "or you can start talking to each other. It’s just that simple."
Earlier this month, more than 1,300 volunteers from around the country attended a day-long convention in New York City. No Labels boasts “hundreds of thousands” of e-mail followers and two dozen members of Congress from both sides of the aisle — though no California Republicans.
Last week the House passed the “No Budget, No Pay” Act, a measure supported by No Labels. It requires Congress to pass a budget to get a paycheck. Bill Galston says it was the centerpiece of a Congressional race in Sacramento last fall.
"Ami Bera used that to great affect against Dan Lungren, who as the chair of the committee of jurisdiction in the House had repeatedly refused to hold hearings on our proposal," Galston says. "And Bera beat him by 1,500 votes."
Now a freshman Congressman, Bera says No Labels taps into the frustrations many Americans have about their political leaders. Bera has also joined the two dozen Congressional No Labels “problem solvers,” but he remains a dedicated Democrat.
"That doesn’t mean giving up on our convictions," says Bera, "but what it does mean is there’s a lot that we agree on. Let’s start there."
Bera wasn’t the only California Congressional candidate to run on a No Labels platform. Republican Gary DeLong in Long Beach and independent Bill Bloomfield in Manhattan Beach both touted their support for No Labels. Both lost their races.
Marc Sandelow, political scientist at the University of California’s D.C. Center, says a movement like No Labels becomes successful when politicians who embrace it win elections. He says there used to be a political middle of the road.
Now, more sophisticated gerrymandering has weeded out those in the political center, leaving hardliners on the right and left. But Sandelow doubts that No Labels will succeed in overcoming gridlock. He says it’s often hard to keep the politics out, even when the two parties agree on something.
"If you’re Nancy Pelosi," says Sandelow, "and you might be convinced to do something the Republicans want, but it makes the Republicans look good and you’re thinking, If I make the Republicans look bad in general, maybe they lose the midterm elections, maybe I become Speaker. If I become Speaker, we can push cap-and-trade and make choice more available to more women, we can do a million things. It makes you not want to compromise."
Sandelow says it's not "necessarily evil" to work against the opposition party if you think that your party is going to be better for the country in the long term.
It may not be evil to stay true to your party, but as the public ranks Congress less popular than a root canal, it could prove painful at the polling booth.