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.
Office of Rep. Karen Bass
Rep. Karen Bass (D-CA) has landed a seat on the House Judiciary Committee.
Santa came early for several members of Congress: House leaders on Thursday announced committee assignments for both veterans and newcomers.
Republican Congressman Gary Miller will now be the number two Republican on the House Financial Services Committee. Miller, who just won reelection in a new district in San Bernadino, has served on that committee for more than a decade and has been active on housing and mortgage issues.
Irvine Congressman John Campbell also serves on Financial Services and has landed the top spot on the Domestic and International Monetary Policy Subcommittee.
On the Democratic side, a trio of California Congresswomen are taking on new committees. L.A.'s Karen Bass adds the Judiciary Committee to her "things to do" list. Oakland Congresswoman Barbara Lee, who's served for a decade and a half in Washington, will now serve on the House Budget Committee.
Democrat Raul Ruiz unseated Republican incumbent Mary Bono-Mack in a Coachella Valley district that includes Palm Springs.
It’s been nearly two weeks since Californians cast their ballots, but it finally looks as though all 53 of the state’s Congressional races have winners, including three races that had been too close to call.
All three races went to Democratic challengers. California’s Secretary of State says absentee and provisional ballots have put emergency room doctor Raul Ruiz more than 7,800 votes ahead of Palm Springs incumbent Republican Congresswoman Mary Bono Mack.
Another physician, Sacramento’s Ami Bera, defeated 17-year incumbent Dan Lungren by 5,600 votes. Bera isn’t surprised Californians voted out the incumbents. He says there's "a real sense of frustration with this last Congress and their inability to address the issues that face our nation."
Down in San Diego, incumbent GOP Congressman Brian Bilbray has conceded to port commissioner Scott Peters, who is more than 5,000 votes ahead.
The results mean California's Republican delegation has shrunk from 19 members to 15.
Officially, the races won’t be certified until mid-December. But all three Democrats will return to Washington next week for round two of freshman orientation.
It’s freshman orientation time, Capitol Hill style. Newly-elected members of Congress spent last week in Washington, where there was a lot to learn and not much time to learn it.
It was a busy week for the new House members from California.
Republican Doug LaMalfa from Redding said going to the House floor was "pretty cool." Ventura Democrat Julia Brownley said there were a lot of meetings in a lot of different locations, which resulted in sore feet, "But it's all been great and very exciting."
L.A. Democrat Tony Cardenas said they received ethics training early in the week, but he had more questions after the session than he did before he walked in the door.
Mark Takano, a Democrat from Riverside, had his priorities in order: he found out where he could get his dry cleaning done in the Longworth House Office Building for about a fourth of the price they charge at the hotel where the newbies were put up.
David Valadao, a Republican representing Hanford in the Central Valley, said the hardest part has been remembering names and faces. He noted when he was a lawmaker in Sacramento, it was easier: just 80 members. And as the minority party, his Republican caucus "just had 27 at the time."
California is sending a bumper crop of 14 freshmen to Capitol Hill. They were feted at a dinner in the grand Statuary Hall of the Capitol by Speaker John Boehner, had their I.D. pictures taken, and staked out their preference for committees.
Cardenas wants Energy and Commerce, since he's an engineer. Takano, a teacher, is leaning toward Education and the Workforce. LaMalfa pointed out that he's a farmer in his "real life," so the Agriculture Committee would be "a natural." But LaMalfa said he already knows this much: "Freshmen don't walk in here and start dictating where they go."
Nevertheless, Democrats Alan Lowenthal from Long Beach and Jared Huffman from Humboldt are both requesting Transportation and Infrastructure. Their party is the minority in the House, which means fewer seats on plum committees like those they're seeking.
But Cardenas isn’t discouraged: "The way it works around here, they say if you don’t get what you ask for, and they give you a different committee, apparently you still get to reserve a right to be on it when a slot opens up in the future."
Brownley also wants one of those rare Transportation seats. She spent an afternoon making her case to the top Democrat on that committee, Nick Rahall of West Virginia.
It’s not just the protocol new freshmen have to learn. There’s also the physical lay of the land. Just ask Valadao and Sacramento Democrat Dr. Ami Bera. Valadao said he got "a little disoriented" in the Capitol. Bera said it's a "maze" of a building and compared it to a hospital.
Democrat Gloria Negrete McLeod of Chino also got a little confused when she stepped into a bathroom: "I walked in and [thought], Why are there urinals here?" She double-checked the door, saw the men's room sign and walked right back out.
But these 14 new members have worries off the Hill as well. Their top concern is housing, whether they'll need a roommate, or a car. Dr. Raul Ruiz of the Coachella Valley said he's thinking about the East Coast winter weather, which he experienced during his college days at Harvard: "I’m starting to think of which clothing that I have that are remnants from my time in Boston that will keep me warm here in D.C."
Scott Peters, a Democrat from San Diego, broached another matter that crosses party lines: "One of the longer commutes in Congress." Peters wondered how he'll make a bi-coastal lifestyle work. LaMalfa said the challenge is whether to "move your family back to this place and then just go home for district business and then try to get back and be here? Or is there enough days that they’re home, you should just stay here and hustle back and forth on the weekends?"
The freshmen will have time to think about logistics while they’re home for Thanksgiving. They’ll be back at work at their temporary cubicles in the basement of the Rayburn Building at the end of the month, picking lottery numbers for office space and learning more about the way things work in D.C.
It has been nearly a week since the election, but California still does not know who is going to Capitol Hill in two Congressional districts.
But California voters will be sending at least 11 new members of Congress to Washington, D.C. That is nearly 20 percent of the delegation.
But two races are too close to call.
In San Diego, incumbent Republican Congressman Brian Bilbray is trailing Democrat Scott Peters, a Port of San Diego Commissioner, by 1,300 votes, based on the latest count. San Diego County is still counting mail-in and provisional ballots.
Near Sacramento, incumbent GOP Congressman Dan Lungren is trailing his Democratic challenger, physician Ami Bera, by more than 1,700 votes.