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December 22, 2011 9:07 AM “No Labels” Stops Whining

By Ezra Klein

“No Labels.” Even the name is annoying. For one thing, it’s a label. There’s no branding quite like anti-branding, which in this case is even perched atop a slogan: “Not left. Not right. Forward.”

It reminds me of nothing so much as the cartoon character Kang’s stump speech from “The Simpsons: Treehouse of Horror VII”: “My fellow Americans. As a young boy, I dreamed of being a baseball, but tonight I say, we must move forward not backward, upward not forward, and always twirling, twirling, twirling toward freedom.”

The problem, of course, is that Americans disagree about which direction is forward. Is it toward universal health care? Or away from it? Toward policies to curb climate change? Or away from them? Toward more rights for gay and lesbian couples? Or toward a constitutional amendment enshrining the primacy of traditional marriage?

Political reform groups like No Labels (which was launched with support from Michael Bloomberg), Unity 08 and Americans Elect tend to buy into the most pernicious myth in politics: that the answers are easy and obvious, and that all the political system needs is a firmer commitment to common sense, bipartisanship or “the American people.” These groups don’t just deny the very real arguments that divide our politics, they take themselves out of the game of offering solutions. They leave everyone else to do the hard work while they collect accolades for offering a future beyond division and bickering and ugliness — and reality.

But last week, No Labels surprised me. They released an agenda that did the impossible: proposed a plausible path for moving in that most elusive direction: forward. They did it, unexpectedly, by refusing to suggest that they themselves knew which direction ultimately is forward.

Stubborn Architecture

The group’s essential insight is that the American political system has stopped working for the left and the right — not to mention for the middle, wherever that may be. The basic architecture of the executive and legislative branches has remained unchanged since the country’s founding. The rules that govern Congress have been updated more regularly, but the last major overhaul was in 1975. Think of how much the country has changed since 1975. Think of how much the political parties have changed since 1975.

The 1970s, though a tumultuous time for the country, were still relatively irenic for the U.S. Congress. The Republican Party still included a large contingent of Northeastern liberals. The Democratic Party still had its Southern conservatives. The two parties, in other words, were ideologically diverse, and thus forced to work together.

A decade earlier, Medicare, a full government takeover of the health-insurance market for senior citizens, had cleared the Senate with a two-thirds majority and a substantial number of Republican votes. Not long after, Republican President Richard Nixon proposed a universal health-care law far to the left of anything President Barack Obama and the Democrats considered in 2009. Oh, and he signed the Clean Air Act, too.

The U.S. political system was built for consensus and, in that period, the country more or less had it. That’s not to wipe the slate clean. There were bitter elections and Red baiting, along with Nixon’s Southern strategy and angry clashes over Vietnam. But there were also numerous occasions when service to the nation’s political institutions trumped partisanship. Republicans joined Democrats to censure one of their own, Joseph McCarthy, on the Senate floor. Democrat William Fulbright used the chairmanship of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to oppose a Democratic president’s handling of Vietnam. And Republicans joined Democrats in exposing Watergate crimes and reforming the campaign-finance system.

Calming of Politics

Politics did not stop. But in Congress, in particular, it calmed. Political scientists have developed models to test congressional polarization, and the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s were notable for the moderation of the two parties.

The ‘80s, however, weren’t. That’s when party polarization accelerated. In the ‘90s, the rise was even faster. In the 1994 election, Republicans all but completed their sweep of the South, which dragged their party further to the right. Since 2000, polarization has only gotten worse.

American politics, in other words, has changed dramatically over the past 30 years. American political institutions have not. They’re built for consensus in an age of extreme polarization. There were more filibusters in 2009 and 2010 than in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s combined. Congressional Republicans almost forced the U.S. to default on its debt in 1995 and 2011. That would have been inconceivable in the middle of the century.

Enter No Labels. Rather than confine themselves to wishful thinking about a third-party candidacy or endless scolding over partisanship, its members have come out with a robust agenda for congressional reform.

Some of the items on the agenda are symbolic at best. Holding bipartisan monthly meetings and seating Democrats and Republicans together in Congress isn’t likely to usher in a new age of bipartisanship. Members of Congress are grown-ups responding to real pressures within their parties, and real demands from their most engaged constituents. They don’t need more play dates with the other side. But you know what? More play dates with the other side aren’t likely to hurt anything, either. So why not?

Some of the items on No Label’s agenda would transform the workings of sclerotic and dysfunctional institutions. Nominations to executive or judicial positions, for instance, would get an up-or-down vote after 90 days. If the federal budget was late, members of Congress wouldn’t get paid. Filibustering senators would actually have to do the Mr.-Smith- Goes-to-Washington thing and hold the floor of Congress by talking. No more filibustering without actually working for it. Oh, and filibusters could only be mounted against the passage of a bill — currently, the motion to move to debate is frequently filibustered, which means the filibuster is used to choke off debate rather than protect it.

Accountability Lost

When voters give power to one party or another, that party should be able to staff the government and enact enough of its policies for voters to be able to judge the results and hold the party accountable. That’s the theory under which our political system works: Good outcomes are rewarded with election victories, and bad ones punished with defeat.

Right now, voters give power to a political party, that party gets obstructed, then voters hold them accountable for the results of obstruction on the floor of, in most cases, the U.S. Senate. Because most voters don’t follow the ins-and-outs of congressional procedure, they simply assume that the majority is driving the decisions and blame them for whatever happens. Accountability, in other words, is breaking down.

That’s bad for both parties, and it means that, ultimately, whether you think the nation would be better off going to the right or the left, neither party is able to move the country forward. No Labels, to their credit, has made a good start on a solution.

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Ezra Klein is a columnist for Bloomberg View.
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Comments

  • bdop4 on December 23, 2011 11:05 AM:

    That's a good start, but it just starts scratching the surface. Our system of electoral politics has to be completely overhauled, starting with the elimination of political advertising and the establishment of a informational platform that gives everyone an equal voice.

    If we can ban advertising for cigarettes, we can ban political ads, as I see them as a cancer on the body politic. There are all kinds of internet models that would allow any candidate (and any voter for that matter) a completely unfettered voice for those who are interested. For those uncomfortable with electronic media, we can have dedicated channels like CSPAN which air candidate forums and other informational programming.

    All of this, plus print media, would also be available to anyone at these ancient institutions called LIBRARIES. You remember those, don't you?

    It all sounds so idealistic, but the truth is that it's very doable. All that is lacking is the political will to do it.

  • Wyatt on December 23, 2011 1:10 PM:

    Let's spend a minute talking about a far more pervasive and--in my mind--tragic feature of our elections: campaign finance. I realize at this point there's not much left to kick as the horse is pretty much decomposed, but campaign finance reform should be the responsibility of all politicians. Few elected officials have the guts, backup, or electoral support to make this possible, so why don't these 'politically-transcendent' groups pick up the mantle? That, to me, would be the most constructive thing anyone could do to revitalize our political sphere.

  • Doug on December 23, 2011 5:39 PM:

    The seating? Meh. All the other proposals seem long overdue; especially actual reform of the filibuster. Properly used, say during debates when a close outcome is known, it may actually serve to change a few votes. As presently (mis)used, it's sole purpose is to obstruct the day-to-day workings of the Senate and Federal government. It's this misuse, among other things, that's resulted in Congress' approval ratings digging new sub-basements every month. Couple the filibuster misuse with the MSM's failure to actually report what is happening and the only wonder is that their ratings aren't even lower.
    All of the changes, pace seating, reported by Mr. Klein are needed. None will allow a party to run roughshod over their opposition or entrench themselves in power against the wishes of voters. Had some of these suggestions been in force during the past three decades, Republicans would have had NO excuse for not implementing some of their more radical economic and social ideas. My personal belief is, had that occurred, there would be even LESS support for Republican policies today.
    Campaign finance won't be addressed as long as there are right-wing activist judges on the Supreme Court, so we may as well concentrate on what Mr. Klein has written about the "No Labels" proposals. I give both the proposals and his article "two thumbs up".

  • Gtown Don on December 24, 2011 1:21 PM:

    I agree about, "that most pernicious myth in politics: that the answers are easy and obvious," and I agree that some the No Labels reforms, such as limiting filibusters are a good (but hardly new) ideas. I'm not so sure about the no-paycheck-until-budget-passage provision. To the many members of the Senate who are already independently wealthy, their paycheck hardly matters, so this provision would give richer members leverage over (comparatively) poorer ones.

    But I'm afraid that there's another pernicious myth that this article, and also No Labels, actually promotes: the myth of equivalence, particularly in this passage:

    "Right now, voters give power to a political party, that party gets obstructed, then voters hold them accountable for the results of obstruction on the floor of, in most cases, the U.S. Senate. "

    Can one really say that both parties do this to anything near an equal extent? Republicans have obstructed President Obama as if they would rather see America fail than a Democratic president, especially *this* Democratic president, succeed. Did Democrats do anything similar when Bush was president and Republicans had majorities in Congress (2001-2006)? It seems to me that Bush and the Republicans got almost everything they wanted, from massive budget-busting tax cuts for the rich to war in Iraq, usually with a nice dollop of Democratic votes to provide "bipartisan" cover. The only big thing Bush was really stopped on was privatizing Social Security, and that had a lot to do with a rebellion within the Republican ranks.

  • Big River Bandido on December 25, 2011 8:56 AM:

    No Labels is just another establishment attempt at Third Wayism, when Third Way economics, in particularly, has failed so spectacularly.

    I note that these so-called "structural reforms", while decent ideas, do not rise beyond the level of tinkering with the process of government. Process can always be easily manipulated by an organized and aggressive minority to suit its own ends. The idea that reforms like this contain the silver bullet is either naive, or thin cover for more corporate economic policies.

  • dghdf on December 26, 2011 9:06 AM: