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.
U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) said Friday that the NRA's proposal "is really nothing more than a distraction."
After the National Rifle Association called Friday for armed police officers at every local school, California members of Congress were swift to react to the proposal.
Democratic U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein didn’t dismiss the NRA proposal out of hand. "If school districts want to hire armed security guards," she said, "I support that. It’s a decision each school district should make." Feinstein added that one-in-three public schools in America already have armed security on staff.
Feinstein again called for a renewal of her assault weapons ban. "The NRA’s blanket call to arm our schools is really nothing more than a distraction," she said. "It’s a delay tactic."
Democrats on the House side were equally critical. Grace Napolitano of Norwalk said it was "just like the NRA. Sell more guns. Arm everybody." West L.A.'s Henry Waxman sait it was "very cynical for the NRA to blame everybody but themselves for the gun disasters, the killing that we’ve been seeing in recent years." And Janice Hahn of Carson said the NRA’s solution "is so out of touch with reality and so out of touch with what the American people want right now."
Hahn supports the assault weapons ban, but wants to do something about the guns already out there. She sent a letter to House Speaker John Boehner and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi asking that $200 million in any fiscal cliff deal be set aside to buy back assault weapons: "I want to get the ones that are already out there and get them off the streets."
Waxman also supports Feinstein’s assault weapons ban, and a ban on magazine clips for those weapons. He also suggests a look at our culture’s “glorification of violence” and an examination of our mental health system.
Mental health is the top issue for Congresswoman Napolitano. She says families need education to help identify those with mental health problems and the resources to treat them. She says families should be able "to have the funding to pay for the expensive psychiatric treatment for those who need it."
Most Republican House members have been silent on the issue, but Congressman Buck McKeon of Santa Clarita issued a statement saying there should be a “thorough dissection of our country’s mental health and family services.” He also suggests looking at “problematic” enforcement issues with current gun laws.
And a spokesman for Irvine’s John Campbell says the Congressman doesn’t support a “single solution approach to solving what is clearly a multi-faceted problem,” but does believe we should have a national debate about the root causes of the violence at Newtown.
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.
Congresswoman Laura Richardson is in trouble.
The publication “Roll Call” already lists her as the lawmaker most likely to lose her seat. Internal polling numbers from her opponent Janice Hahn show Richardson trailing by 16 points, with 30 percent undecided.
The Long Beach Democrat only has about $68,000 dollars in campaign cash on hand.
During the last quarter, Richardson had to lend her campaign more money than she’d raised in campaign donations. She raised under $7000; she lent the campaign $9000. So far, she’s committed $19,000 of her own money to her reelection bid.
Among those who contributed to the Richardson campaign last quarter was her mentor, the late Congressman and Lt. Governor Mervyn Dymally. She credits him with encouraging her to run for Congress.
Richardson is running against fellow Democrat, freshman Congresswoman Janice Hahn, in a newly drawn district.
Hahn is also in the red; she owes more than $60,000 than she has on hand. Hahn owes money for polling, printing, advertising, legal fees, and consulting.
One consultant is longtime Democratic advisor Joe Trippi, who worked on campaigns for Tom Bradley and Alan Cranston and on the presidential runs of Ted Kennedy, Walter Mondale, Gary Hart, Richard Gephardt, Howard Dean and, most recently, John Edwards.
Hahn also owes money to a baseball club that is not the Dodgers.
Her father, the late L.A. County Supervisor Kenneth Hahn, was instrumental in bringing the Dodgers west from Brooklyn. Janice Hahn had a fundraising event in Washington, DC at Nationals Park, where the Washington Nationals play.
It's doubtful the money owed to the baseball team in DC cost her poltically: the Nats were playing the Dodgers that night.
But Hahn's fundraising prospects are better than Richardson's. Last quarter, Hahn raised nearly $180,000. That’s more than 25 times the amount raised by Laura Richardson.