The Problems Solvers Caucus’s Demands Are Harmless and Silly

There seems to be a million and one reasons for Democrats to be skeptical, or even hostile, to the No Labels enterprise, as Edward-Isaac Dovere ably demonstrates in a new piece for The Atlantic. Among them are the facts that founder and CEO Nancy Jacobson is married to Mark Penn who once was a strategist for Hillary Clinton but now spends his time on Fox News trolling his former party, that past co-chairs include Jon Huntsman and Joe Lieberman, and that the organization seems more interested in waging primaries against Democrats than Republicans.

They also have a particular dislike of Nancy Pelosi and explored funding a primary challenger against her. When that idea went nowhere, they played around with another.

Jacobson’s idea of running against Pelosi faded. But her opposition to Pelosi did not. In the spring of 2018, she asked staff to explore looking into labeling Pelosi a “bogeyman” after the Democratic Representative Dan Lipinski of Illinois, a centrist member of the Problem Solvers Caucus, fended off a primary challenge from the left. While Pelosi had endorsed Lipinski, Jacobson believed Pelosi had secretly opposed his bid. (The argument against Jacobson’s “bogeyman” idea, put forth by Ryan Clancy, No Labels’ chief strategist, the Daily Beast reported on Monday, was that it would be like declaring war on the Democratic leader.)

As Nancy Pelosi prepares to meet with Democratic members of the No Labels-affiliated Problem Solvers Caucus today, there is understandable anger that they are threatening to withhold support for her speakership unless she accedes to a list of demands. In truth, however, their proposals are somewhere between inconsequential and harmless.

The first proposal would require that any legislation that achieves 290 co-sponsors — three-fifths of the House — be debated and get a timely floor vote.

The second would mandate that any amendment with at least 20 co-sponsors from both parties would get a debate and a vote.

The final proposal says every member in every new Congress can introduce one bill on the committee on which he or she serves that would be guaranteed debate and a committee vote as long as the measure is bipartisan and germane to that panel’s jurisdiction.

The first proposal would solve the problem we saw with comprehensive immigration reform where the Senate passed a bill with substantial bipartisan support and a large majority of the House was prepared to vote yes but then-Speaker John Boehner refused to bring the bill up for a vote.

There is already a way to force this kind of issue, but it’s problematic. If a majority of the House wants a bill considered, they can sign a discharge petition that will compel the leadership to allow a vote, but it’s considered disloyal for a member of the majority to participate in that kind of effort and it can be punished in a variety of ways, including the loss of committee assignments. Under the Problem Solvers’ rule, the stigma would be somewhat removed, and it also requires a three-fifths majority so it’s unlikely to involve truly odious legislation.  It’s hard to see how this could lead to much change at all, let alone any significant mischief.

The second proposal is the most objectionable. It doesn’t pertain to bills, but only to amendments to bills. In the House, the Rules Committee uses an iron hand to limit and control what kind of amendments will be allowed, and this is frustrating to members who have difficulty getting consideration for their ideas.  In an ideal world, everyone would benefit from more participation and efforts by members to improve or correct legislation. In the actual world, most amendments are designed to undermine support for legislation or to embarrass or weaken the other party by making them cast difficult votes.  When I look at this proposal, I immediately think of the infamous bipartisan Stupak-Pitts amendment that almost sank the Affordable Care Act. In that case, 64 Democrats voted to effectively prevent the health insurance industry from covering abortion procedures irrespective of whether it was paid for with federal dollars. The language was never used because the House wound up passing the Senate version of the bill, but President Obama was forced to issue a controversial executive order to secure final passage of the law.

It’s not a perfect example of what worries me because the leadership really had no choice but to allow a vote on the Stupak-Pitts amendment.  But is shows how a relatively small group of Democrats can join with almost all the Republicans to gum up popular legislation and put it at risk.  If this provision were adopted, I can envision similar efforts related to gun violence, reproductive rights, or even climate legislation.  At a minimum, the threshold should be substantially higher than twenty Democratic cosponsors.

The third proposal is one I am sympathetic to in theory. I watch all these people running for Congress and promising to go to Washington to make a difference, but then they discover that they can’t get a vote on any of their ideas.  People vote for change, but it’s very hard for fresh blood to change anything.  I don’t really see the purpose of requiring that the bills have a least one sponsor from the opposing party because the problem isn’t related to the nature of the legislation or its potential to have bipartisan appeal. The problem is that the House leadership and committee chairs control the process to such a degree that it’s hard to get a vote on a bill that isn’t on their priority list.

There’s also a practical problem with telling committee chairmen that they have to allow time for the consideration of bills from every member of their committee. I am not sure Pelosi could agree to this demand in anything close to its present form without inviting a revolt from the party’s chairmen.

To hear the Problems Solvers tell it, these reforms are needed to get the kind of legislation through the House that has a chance in hell of passing through the Republican-held Senate.  In other words, they want the the incoming Democratic House to do more than just pass bills to set priorities and send a message. They want to actually solve some problems, especially on infrastructure, immigration reform, and the opioid crisis.

The Democratic leadership and most of its members may want those things too, but they also are wary of giving President Trump any wins that he can use to make his case for reelection. Many are also unwilling to support the kind of compromises that would be necessary to reach an agreement with Mitch McConnell and the White House.

The flaw here is that Nancy Pelosi can try to pass an infrastructure bill that can actually become law but that will require her to enter into serious negotiations with Trump. She might do that if invited, but the success or failure of the effort isn’t going to hinge on whether some Problem Solvers’ can introduce an amendment.

The bottom line is that these proposals are mostly well-intentioned even if they fetishize bipartisanship, and they aren’t really worth getting worked up about. Pelosi could agree to them and it wouldn’t really matter, although I think it could encourage some mischief, especially the second proposal on amendments.

My main problem isn’t that these proposals are bad but that they’re not very well thought out.  And I don’t really mind that the Problem Solvers are using the point of maximum leverage to fight for things on their agenda. If they try to hold up Pelosi’s vote in January, then I’ll be annoyed.

For now, they’re just doing something kind of silly, which is consistent with the whole No Labels project.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.