There’s a group starting to make a little headway in Washington called No Labels. Three of Arkansas’ members of Congress are part of it. It would be great if the others would join.
No Labels was started by Republicans and Democrats who wanted to reduce the partisanship in Washington with a series of mostly simple ideas, such as the concept that members of Congress shouldn’t get paid unless they pass a budget. To the surprise of a lot of people, a watered down version of that idea passed earlier this year, and both the House and the Senate passed budgets — the Senate for the first time in four years. No Labels also has persuaded some Republicans and Democrats to sit together during the State of the Union address rather than separating into camps on either side of the chamber.
The group has managed to recruit 82 members of Congress – Republican, Democrat and other – into a coalition known as the Problem Solvers, whose members regularly meet, listen to each other’s ideas, and try to build trust without violating their core principles. Rep. Tim Griffin, the Republican from central Arkansas’ 2nd District, was the first Arkansas legislator to join. Sen. Mark Pryor, a Democrat, added his name, and then, last week, Republican Rep. Steve Womack from Northwest Arkansas’ 3rd District joined the group.
Womack did it after speaking at a town hall meeting in Berryville Aug. 6, where he criticized the hyperpartisan atmosphere in Washington. In an interview Monday, he said "a chorus of my constituents" had been telling him Washington needs to be able to accomplish something productive.
"There’s no harm in sitting down with people with different viewpoints and analyzing those viewpoints and trying to find out where maybe we can reach agreement on something," he told me. "Not ever going to be 100 percent in agreement, but it’s certainly not productive for our country to just dig in in our respective corners and choose not to work together."
Unfortunately, that attitude is not what gets people elected and re-elected to Congress these days. The partisanship isn’t just coming from the fact that people like to yell at each other these days — though, sadly, they apparently do. It’s also coming from the way the system has evolved. Many House district lines have been drawn in such a way that the districts are "safe," meaning one party dominates. Meanwhile, turnout in party primaries is low enough that a small number of voters, usually the more conservative Republicans and the more liberal Democrats, can determine the outcomes. Powerful outside groups spend billions of dollars to ensure congressmen do their bidding without wavering from their cause.
All those factors mean that in many elections, particularly in the House, members of Congress can only be defeated by members of their own party — usually an ideologically "purer" one. Those who might be inclined to work with a diverse group of people — for instance, a former mayor of Rogers, which Womack is — are forced to dial up the rhetoric and dig in their heels lest they be "primaried" by a well-funded opponent accusing them of being too soft.
Thank goodness we have both liberals and conservatives in Congress, but it’s a problem when there are so few left in the middle to bridge the gap, and it’s even worse when elected officials are punished for being civil and cooperative.
I mentioned that both the Republican-led House and the Democratic-led Senate finally passed a budget this year. However, they never reconciled the two because they can’t seem to talk to each other in a productive way, and so, once again, no budget. They did get paid, however.
That’s the result of the my-way-or-the-highway approach. It doesn’t work in marriages, it doesn’t work in families, it doesn’t work in businesses, and it doesn’t work in Congress.
Is simply getting Republicans and Democrats to meet and discuss the issues in a respectful manner the antidote? A lot can be accomplished when people look past labels.
Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. His email address is email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner