Cory Booker, Joe Lieberman and a Short List of Politicians Busting Gridlock in Washington

If you watched the Cafferty File on CNN on Wednesday night, you may be feeling totally bummed about the future of problem-solving in America right now – if you weren’t already. Cafferty launched the segment with a statement that “the government is paralyzed, unable to get over their political differences in order to work together and address the people's business that desperately needs doing ... We are committing economic suicide.” 

To his question: “What can be done about the deepening polarization in America?,” people tweeted and emailed lots of responses. Most of them were variations on a single theme: Nothing. 

This wasn’t a scientific sample, but it likely wasn’t an aberration, either. A Gallup poll in late 2011 found that 81% of citizens are dissatisfied with the way the country is being governed – a record high.   More than half the respondents (53%) said they have little or no confidence in the men and women running for or holding elected office. 

Before we throw in the towel on governance completely, I think it’s worth asking the question from the flip side. Is there anyone out there in public office who is bucking the hyper-partisan stand-off, reaching across the divides to get things done for the American people?

The answer is yes – although with a small y. Here’s a list of people we can start with.   

Newark Mayor Cory Booker is most recently famous for a somewhat awkward attempt on Meet the Press to push back on negative campaigning. Booker has a record of forging pragmatic partnerships to get things done for his city. He worked closely with New Jersey’s Republican Governor Chris Christie, for example, to launch a bold reform effort for the Newark Public Schools in 2011. The Partnership for Education in Newark (PENewark) attracted a $100 million investment from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s Start-Up: Education Foundation.  Booker told the Huffington Post that this bipartisan public / private venture was “a historic opportunity to break the cycle of failure and low expectations in public education.” Zuckerberg credited the “willingness [of the two elected leaders] to cut through the politics and red tape to collaborate” with having convinced him to get involved.

Representative Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) is one of the original sponsors of the No Budget, No Pay Act, which was simultaneously introduced in the Senate by Dean Heller (R-Nev.). House and Senate versions now have 66 bipartisan co-sponsors. It is part of an action plan being advanced by the citizens’ movement No Labels to get Congress working productively again. It ups the ante on government accountability by stipulating that congressional pay will be withheld every day past the annual October 1 deadline that Congress has not approved a budget and appropriations bills. Last month, Cooper joined representatives Scott Rigell (R-Va.)Reid Ribble (R-Wisc.), and Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.) in launching the Fix Congress Now Caucus. Ribble said they intend for the caucus to be “a vehicle to correct the systemic dysfunction that has plagued Washington – regardless of party affiliation.”   

Senator Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) gave No Budget, No Pay a hearing in the Senate Committee on Homeland Security  and Governmental Affairs, which he chairs, and where he also announced his commitment to do what he could to break the congressional impasse during this last term in office.  Lieberman has “never [been] one to sacrifice his judgment to anyone else’s opinion.” He was one of only three members of the entire Senate and House in 2011 to sign a “civility pledge” that had three elements:

-          I will be civil in my public discourse and behavior.

-          I will be respectful of others whether or not I agree with them.

-          I will stand against incivility when I see it.

The pledge was circulated by a group called The Civility Project, which closed its doors shortly after start-up, perplexed and demoralized by lack of interest on the part of politicians and sharply negative feedback from the community (including “just unbelievable language about communists”). 

Mayor Ted Ellis (Bluffton, Ind.), leads a Midwestern city with fewer than 10,000 residents and also presides over the National League of Cities, an organization that advocates for 19,000 cities, towns and villages representing 218 million Americans. Mayor Ellis’ colleagues are D's, R's, Independents, and other local elected officials whose constituents care more about results than party affiliation. As NLC president, he responded to the most recent U.S. Employment Report with a strong statement condemning gridlock in Congress and urging immediate bipartisan action on the transportation and job training bills. 

“Local leaders around the country are doing what we can to create jobs. We are using our local resources to support investments in infrastructure and human capital that will create jobs and lay the foundation for future growth. But Congressional gridlock has dampened hope of significant job growth any time soon. This has got to stop. America’s cities and towns urge Congress to put aside the partisan bickering and pass legislation now that will contribute to economic growth.” 

Senators Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and James Inhofe (R-Okla.) crafted a bipartisan solution to the federal transportation logjam and presented it as a proposal to the House this week. Lack of action on long-overdue legislation allowing the nation to move forward with improvements to highway, bridge, and transit systems has frustrated thousands of local and state officials who cannot commit to transportation projects without assurance of federal match. The Washington Post referred to the stalled transportation bill as “a case study of a dysfunctional Congress.” Reuters quotes a Guggenheim Partners’ senior policy analyst making a similar point: “The Highway Bill has become a microcosm of the broader spending fight in Congress, much to the detriment of a bill that was once the pinnacle of bipartisanship.” The sponsors say their proposal was carefully crafted and incorporates wishes from both sides of the aisle. They have a bumpy road ahead.

What can we say about these examples? They’re partial, imperfect, fragile; in today’s hyper-partisan climate, they’re magnets for derision. They’re also gutsy and they may be the most effective tools we have to break through the gridlock that’s convinced the American people that we’re stuck with nothing.