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In Congress, the representatives who don’t see ‘compromise’ as a dirty word

Why We Wrote This

Is there a different way to govern in this era of hyperpartisan politics? Twenty-four Democrats and 24 Republicans in Congress think so. And they’re staking their careers on it. 

Jessica Mendoza/The Christian Science Monitor
Democratic candidate for Congress Jesse Colvin (c.) and his wife Jordan show a volunteer how to use their canvassing app on Friday, Oct. 19, 2018, in Salisbury, Md.

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In an era of hyperpartisan politics, Jesse Colvin and his wife, Jordan, are an anomaly: She’s a registered Republican, while he’s running for Congress as a Democrat in Maryland’s 1st district. Despite the odds, the couple are convinced that they represent a sizable slice of the American public that still values practical governance and common ground. Which is the reason Mr. Colvin has signed a pledge to “Break the Gridlock” – a promise that, if elected, he will support an effort by the House Problem Solvers Caucus to change the rules around electing a speaker of the House. Members of the caucus, which was formed in January 2017, say the rules change will make it easier to craft and pass bipartisan laws. It may be a tough sell at a time when partisanship is rewarded, but members who’ve committed to the cause say it feels worthwhile. “People say we’re tilting at windmills,” says Rep. Tom Reed (R) of New York, who co-chairs the caucus. “But there’s a lot of folks on both sides that are like, ‘This is toxic.’ Any compromise is seen as a sellout. We’re not buying that anymore.”

The RV rumbles down the highway, south and east toward Salisbury in the heart of Marlyand’s Eastern Shore.

Inside, amid a spill of snacks and half-empty water bottles, Jordan Colvin explains why she didn’t vote for her husband in the state primary in June.

Or rather, why she couldn’t.

Ms. Colvin is a registered Republican. Her husband, Jesse, is running in Maryland’s 1st congressional district as a Democrat. The best she could do, she says, was campaign on his behalf. “I got a lot of votes for him,” she says, grinning.

In an election cycle that’s been one of the most polarizing in modern times – and in an era when Republicans and Democrats can’t agree on even basic facts – the Colvins’s bipartisan household seems anomalous, almost quaint.

But Mr. Colvin says he and his wife represent a sizable slice of the American public that still values practical governance and common ground, and believes those things possible.

The former US Army Ranger, who’s running a long-shot campaign against Republican incumbent Andy Harris, says party affiliation hasn’t stopped him and Jordan from sharing a life or raising their baby son. “You start with commonality, you build a relationship, then you can start dealing with tough issues,” Colvin says.

Why, he asks, shouldn’t the same apply to good leadership?

At least one group in Congress agrees. The Problem Solvers Caucus is made up of 48 members, 24 from each major party, who’ve vowed to counteract gridlock in the House of Representatives. Their big idea: to reform the system so that members have to both work with colleagues across the aisle and vote on compromise legislation.

“We’re trying to encourage consensus-driven government,” says Rep. Tom Reed (R) of New York, who co-chairs the caucus. “We want to work with fellow members and cut out the shenanigans.”

The jury’s still out on whether the concept has legs, and whether it can survive the election or the more extreme elements in the House. Since forming in 2017, the caucus has crafted several bipartisan bills on issues such as immigration and health care, but has struggled to get them debated on the floor.

Now the group is focused on supporting members who are up for reelection – and recruiting candidates like Colvin. Once the new session starts, they’ll shift their attention to electing a speaker who pledges to support a package of reforms around the way bills are passed in the House.

It’s an effort to bring folks together at a time when Congress is best known for bickering and inaction. And members who’ve committed to the cause say it feels worthwhile.

“I think it’s the best thing I do in Washington,” says Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D) of New Jersey, who was elected co-chair with Congressman Reed. “We’re governing.”

Birth of a caucus

The Problem Solvers Caucus began as the idea of No Labels, a nonpartisan nonprofit that has its sights set on getting leaders in Washington to work together.

In 2013, No Labels started bringing together congressmen and -women who were interested in pushing past hyperpartisan politics. The group became the Problem Solvers. Members met informally until after the 2016 election, when some in the group decided they wanted to form a proper congressional caucus – a coalition that could actually influence policy.

“We got together and said, ‘Let’s get people who really want to walk the walk,’ ” Reed says.

In January 2017, they created the Problem Solvers Caucus 2.0, separate from No Labels. They adopted bylaws that called for members – who were always to be an even split between Democrats and Republicans – to vote as a bloc. They agreed to avoid actively campaigning against each other or donating to members’ opponents.

And they got to work.

Members met over lunch and after hours, drawing up bills on white boards, over coffee. They came up with a health-care plan that tried to balance marketplace stability and lower costs. They spent about four months negotiating a proposal that paired a path to citizenship for qualifying undocumented immigrants with a $1.6 billion-plan for barriers and fencing along the border.

Neither bill even made it to the floor for a vote. In the way was the Hastert Rule, which says the speaker of the House shouldn’t schedule a vote on legislation unless a majority of the majority party supports it. It’s a quick way to kill minority – or bipartisan – measures that could find broad support in the full House.

The rule, named after the now disgraced Speaker Dennis Hastert, helped lead the caucus to prioritize reform within the legislature before they took on other issues.

In July, the Problem Solvers launched “Break the Gridlock,” a reform package that would require relevant committees to mark up, within 30 days, any bill that gets at least two-thirds of the House as co-sponsors. The Rules Committee would also have to report that bill unless the entire committee rejects it.

Jessica Mendoza/The Christian Science Monitor
Jesse Colvin, a first time candidate for Congress, gears up to knock on a resident's door on Oct. 19, in Salisbury, Md. In September, Mr. Colvin, a Democrat, signed a pledge to “Break the Gridlock” with the House Problem Solvers Caucus.

The package also proposes repealing the 200-year-old rule that lets any House member call for a “motion to vacate the chair” – a declaration to formally remove a sitting speaker and elect a new one. The caucus says the procedure basically holds the speaker hostage to minority interests.

Instead, the group suggests a petition process that requires the signatures of one-third of all House members before a motion to oust a speaker can be considered on the floor. Today 20 members (10 Republicans and 10 Democrats), have signed the Break the Gridlock pledge.

“The House rules change is key,” says former Virginia Rep. Tom Davis, who chaired the National Republican Congressional Committee and co-founded No Labels. “If you have an amendment with substantial support, you can bring it up and at least have a vote on it.”

This isn’t the first time someone tried amending the rules. In 2015, Rep. Paul Ryan tried to make changing the “motion to vacate” rule a condition of his bid for speaker. When the Freedom Caucus reportedly opposed the condition, Speaker Ryan agreed to delay the issue. The rule remains in place today.

The Problem Solvers expect to see similar pushback to their proposal from both party leadership and coalitions like the conservative Freedom Caucus, which see the current system as essential to keeping the speaker’s power in check. They acknowledge needing numbers. Still, Reed and his colleagues are hoping that after Nov. 6, a slimmer majority in the House – regardless of which party holds it – could boost their level of influence.

“If you have a five- or 10-seat majority, and there’s 10 of us saying, ‘No, we’re not going to vote with you without rule reform,’ that’s simple math,” the congressman says. “You won’t get to 218” – the minimum number of members needed to elect a speaker.

#BreaktheGridlock

To Colvin, pledging to #BreaktheGridlock, which he did in September, seemed a natural fit. He was already campaigning on practical governance, he says. Splashed on the side of his 36-foot campaign motor home, known to family and staff as “Camp Colvin,” were the words, “Country over party.”

As the RV lumbers past towns that edge the Chesapeake Bay, the Colvins explain how they make a bipartisan marriage work in an age of hyperpartisanship. The secret, they say, is in finding shared purpose.

In their case, it’s service. Between 2010 and 2013, Colvin – the son of a public defender and a district court judge – served four tours in Afghanistan as an intelligence officer. Jordan Colvin spent two years as an investigator with the D.C. police department’s human trafficking and narcotics division. Now, while Jesse focuses on the campaign full time, Jordan brings an income through her nonprofit, which connects military veterans with service animals.

“We don’t care if [our son] becomes a Democrat or a Republican,” Colvin says. “But we do care if he cares about public service.”

Will that attitude be enough to undo the damage that toxic partisanship has dealt the country? Or win a first-time candidate a longshot congressional seat?

Colvin has to believe it can. On the bus, and later as he canvassed through a Salisbury neighborhood with his staff and volunteers, he brought up the importance, and challenge, of connecting with people. Of putting in time. Forging bonds. “You show up and be a presence in the community and just try to build relationships,” he says, when asked about reaching out to minority residents in his district. 

When he talked about working with US government agencies and contractors in Afghanistan: “You had to get the bureaucracy managed and you could only do that if you had the relationships to say, ‘Hey, I need you to work on this. We need to do it together.’ ”

And as the Colvin crew made their way to a supporter meet-and-greet to close out the day: “The secret sauce is that there is none,” he says. “Just building relationships.”

Back in Washington, the Problem Solvers echo the sentiment.

Gottheimer says all those long nights have led to stronger ties with colleagues he used to barely talk to. And while he’s not envisioning a return to some nonexistent “good ol’ days,” he does like to think that they can move toward a more cordial, and efficient, future.

“It’s hard to have an open, honest conversation with people if you don’t trust them,” Gottheimer says. “If we want to pass good and durable laws, we have to have the relationships to be able to talk to one another and really engage.”

“People say we’re tilting at windmills,” Reed adds. “But there’s a lot of folks on both sides that are like, ‘This is toxic.’ Any compromise is seen as a sellout. We’re not buying that anymore.” 

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