Wait! Do I Smell Bipartisanship?

No Labels co-chairs Jon Huntsman (R-UT) and Joe Manchin (D-WV) [David Karp/AP]
No Labels co-chairs Jon Huntsman (R-UT) and Joe Manchin (D-WV) [David Karp/AP]
“They started off meeting once a month, but then decided it was so productive they wanted to start meeting once a week.”

Well, those are some sentences that no one expected to hear from a political news story these days! Better yet: the “they” that Mark McKinnon mentions in his July 19 article for The Daily Beast is a group of legislators from both sides of the aisle, not just the same party! This group is called “No Labels”, and a few days ago, it unveiled a legislative package called “Make Government Work”, dedicated to promoting more efficient practices in Congress. McKinnon also wrote the following in his article on the group:

“The Problem Solvers [No Labels members] started just six months ago, with a group of 25 members. Then word started getting out that this group is for real. That it broadly represents everyone from MoveOn Democrats to Tea Party Republicans and everyone in between. That they actually meet.”

In this article, I would like to examine two important bills in the “Make Government Work” legislative package. Is No Labels just a passing trend? Or is it something different? Has bipartisanship finally come to Washington?

1. No Budget, No Pay

This is perhaps my favorite bill in the entire group, and it’s pretty simple. “No Budget, No Pay” means that if Congress fails to pass a budget, its members will not receive a salary for that year. In its explanation of the bill, No Labels states that “plenty of members of Congress need their salary to pay living expenses, just like everyone else in America does. If congressional pay stopped, even those members who don’t particularly need their salaries would face plenty of pressure from their colleagues who do…” And Congress is certainly paid a hefty amount. The yearly salary for a senator has been $174,000 since 2009. During the Great Recession, pay for senators actually increased, even as American workers were losing their jobs or taking massive pay cuts. In fact, the last time the Senate took a pay cut was while Franklin Delano Roosevelt was still President of the United States. “No Budget, No Pay” will hopefully reward Congress for hard work-and punish it for bad work.

2. Take the Time, Save the Dime

Every year, Congress struggles to pass a budget on time. Sometimes, it doesn’t even pass a budget. The same problem happens the next year. And the next. And the next. So, No Labels has proposed “Take the Time, Save the Dime”, a plan that would have Congress pass budgets every two years. The idea is that “the longer cycle would provide greater budget stability by giving members more time for planning”, according to the group. David Kendall and Jim Kessler of Third Way actually studied the advantages of biennial budgeting in 2010. Their analysis:

Juxtaposed to the present system, a comprehensive biennial budget cycle would encourage more vigorous oversight of federal programs.”

During the first year, Congress would pass a budget for the next two years. Then, during the off-years, legislators could take more time to examine where the excesses and shortfalls of the federal budget are. The end result would hopefully be pragmatic co-operation on the fiscal issues in Washington, and maybe even a reduced deficit.

Can this work?

I actually received a statement from the office of Congresswoman Lynn Jenkins (R), the only Kansan to be a part of No Labels, about her participation in the group. Here is an excerpt of what she told me:

“As I travel from one end of the district to another, the complaint I hear the most is that Washington does not get anything done. Folks are tired of the fighting and gridlock in Congress. They have asked me to help get beyond the rhetoric and help the hard-working taxpayers who expect better from their elected leaders. For these reasons, I joined this group…I am proud to be a part of a group focused on finding common ground, and not simply on taking cheap shots against the other side.”

Now, there are some skeptics, and rightfully so. Tess VandenDolder of InTheCapital wrote that “the repetition of the mantra of bipartisanship came across more as self-congratulatory oration than real policy solutions.” Time will tell whether or not groups like No Labels are going to actually impact the environment in Washington. But for now, in a time when cooperation is so hard to find, let’s take comfort in the idea that bipartisanship might just be coming back into style.

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