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.
Retiring Republican Congressman Jerry Lewis (right) has served in the House since 1979.
You might call it musical chairs, that time in the political calendar when members of Congress make their move up the leadership ladder. But the turnover of more than a dozen California seats in the House means going to the back of the seniority line.
In some ways, nothing’s changed for California. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer still chair key Senate committees. But the real power shift is in the House, where citizen-drawn district lines led to competitive races. California lost 14 incumbents and with them, astoundingly, nearly 300 years of service on the Hill.
Norm Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, says losing seniority means losing members in strong leadership positions, "often chairmanships or ranking positions in committees that matter." He says, normally, you'd see some reduction in the clout of a state. "But in a state like California, which has more members than anybody else, which is going to get members on every single panel so that they can effectively argue the case, it’s not as dramatic as it might sound."
California can still claim both the House Majority Whip, Kevin McCarthy, and the Minority Leader, Nancy Pelosi. Buck McKeon of Santa Clarita still chairs the House Armed Services Committee; Darrell Issa of Temecula heads Oversight and Government Reform.
Congressman Howard Berman, left, has won endorsements from two GOP U.S. Senators in his runoff against fellow Democrat Brad Sherman.
California's "top two" primary is rewriting the rules for political endorsements.
There are several Congressional races in Southern California where voters will choose between two Democrats or two Republicans on the November ballot. That's because the top two finishers in the June primary — regardless of party — face off in the general election.
The most expensive and contentious race is in the San Fernando Valley, where Congressman Howard Berman faces off against fellow Democratic Congressman Brad Sherman.
Berman has snagged a number of top Democrats as backers: Senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, Governor Jerry Brown, and two dozen members of California's Congressional delegation. Today, he announced he's got some new endorsements: Senators John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. Both are Republicans.