By Ashlee Rezin
U.S. Rep. Brad Schneider (D, IL-10) was recently the 70th elected official to join a bipartisan coalition of congressional delegates attempting to build trust across the aisle. The group of lawmakers, called the Problem Solvers, plan to unveil their first package of bills, which will address government waste, by the end of next month.
Americans are frustrated with partisan gridlock in Congress, according to members of the citizen-led nonpartisan organization No Labels, which organized the Problem Solvers partnership earlier this year.
No Labels was founded with the purpose of overcoming the political gridlock that has dominated Capitol Hill, according to the organization. By recruiting a group of bipartisan members of Congress to meet monthly and draft legislation, No Labels aims to create a "center of gravity" in Washington.
"Our national government is very badly divided along party and ideological lines, that's no secret," said William Galston, senior fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution and co-founder of No Labels. "In circumstances of which the national government is as severely polarized as it is right now, the two choices are compromise or gridlock, there is no third choice."
Saying he is "willing to work with anyone," Schneider officially joined the group last week. Other Illinois congressmen who have signed on to No Labels' Problem Solvers group include U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) and U.S. Reps. Dan Lipinski (D, IL-3), Rodney Davis (R, IL-13), Adam Kinzinger (R, IL-16) and Cheri Bustos (D, IL-17).
"As our nation's problems have gotten bigger, Congress has gotten smaller. Not smaller in size or smaller in ego, but smaller in the capacity to get things done," said Lipinski in a statement announing his decision to join the group. Lipinski was one of 24 original Problem Solvers to launch the group in January.
"The American people see this," he said. "In fact, one recent poll suggests Americans have a higher opinion of cockroaches and traffic jams than of Congress."
According to Galston, No Labels has provided the Problem Solvers with an arena dedicated to overcoming partisan gridlock. The organization boasts more than 500,000 members of the general public.
"In recent years a real red team, blue team mentality has grown up in Congress, and members of the red team rarely speak to, or even know, members of the blue team, and vice versa," he said.
According to Bustos, the Problem Solvers are currently working on a package of nine bills that are scheduled to be unveiled July 18.
Saying the bills carry "practical commonsense solutions to some of our problems," Bustos wouldn't divulge any specifics. But, she did say the legislative package addresses redundant services and waste in government and will, of course, have bipartisan support.
"We still aren't moving the country forward fast enough and getting our economy moving again," Bustos said, adding that she doesn't "think compromise is a bad word."
"There's too much political "gotcha-ism' that's going on," Bustos went on to say. "It's not helpful to our country, and it's not helpful to the governmental process."
But one political science expert is doubtful the Problem Solvers will be able to significantly effect change.
"If a Republican, for instance, were to take too moderate of a position, they would have challengers from the right, and you can say the same thing on the Democratic side," said Dick Simpson, former Chicago alderman and professor of political science at theUniversity of Illinois at Chicago. "We are living in one of the most gridlocked periods of Congress in modern history."
He said the group might be able to find common ground and get "small legislation, such as transportation funding" passed.
"But there doesn't seem to be, or doesn't seem there will be, any progress on bigger issues," Simpson said, noting that recent efforts to pass immigration reform are an "honest attempt" to reach across the aisle. "If (the Problem Solvers) can begin passing legislation, it could be deemed innovative, but in this current Congress I am doubtful."
Simpson pointed to the sequester as an example of Congress' failure to cooperate across the aisle.
"They weren't able to come together and agree upon budgets and because of that we have these draconian cuts coming into effect," he said.
A $1.2 trillion package of across-the-board spending cuts over the next decade kicked in March 1, resulting in $85 billion of federal budget cuts this year alone. Federal workers across the country have already started experiencing furlough days as a result of the cuts, and 80,000 Illinoisans facing long-term unemployment will see an average of $51 less on their weekly federal unemployment insurance payments as a result of the cuts.
Congressional gridlock prevented a legislative solution to the immediate, sweeping sequester cuts, which were designed as an enforcement mechanism to get legislators to agree on a deficit reduction plan. Democrats insisted that a sequester solution should have included additional new revenues along with spending cuts, while Republicans insisted on an approach that focused solely on spending cuts.
Bustos said the whole situation was "idiotic."
"This across-the-board, meat cleaver approach to budgeting is not the way we should be looking at our budget problems in the federal government," she said.
Ralph Martire, executive director of the Center For Tax and Budget Accountability, said the sequester should "never have been allowed to happen."
"They weren't in the public interest. They were designed to force the House of Representatives and the Senate to sit down and reach some sort of agreement that involves some compromise," he said. "Well, that agreement never materialized and so these draconian sanctions were allowed to become law and they will, in fact, create a drag on our economy."
Voters need to demand that elected officials find a way to bridge ideological divides, work across party lines, and govern in the public interest, according to Martire.
"If they are not willing to compromise on big items, like a budget for the country that doesn't inflict harm on the economy, vote them out of office," he said.
He added that "it's a good thing" if, on any occasion, bipartisan elected officials can find common ground. He said the Problem Solvers serve as a "good starting point."
"It could be difficult for elected officials who have to eventually run for re-election though," he said. "They could be attacked by their own party, they could be attacked by opposition in the public."
A phone poll organized by No Labels in 2011, not long after the organization formally launched, found that 88 percent of the more than 100,000 participants agreed that partisan politics are a problem in the U.S. When asked if they would feel better about the state of the nation if legislators came up with a bipartisan debt reduction plan, 79 percent of callers responded "yes."
"I joined because it's the right thing to do," said Bustos, referring to the Problem Solvers. "We need to go in and look for the problems and if we hit a road block, we need to try to work around it."
Bustos said there was no other mechanism in Congress by which bipartisan members of the Senate and the House regularly come together and "talk about meaningful changes and moving our economy forward", adding that lawmakers need to "focus on working through issues that have brought Congress to a standstill."