NEW YORK—Janice Hahn swirls 20-year-old port in a wineglass and raises it to her lips. “Ooh,” she purrs, “that’s good.” Sitting to her left, Reid Ribble excavates a scoop of vanilla ice cream from his bowl and plops it on her plate with a fork. She smiles and mouths a thank-you.
Hahn is a House Democrat, Ribble a House Republican—and they are drinking to more than good fortunes. Nine members of Congress (six Democrats and three Republicans) have gathered at the Southgate Restaurant across from Central Park to discuss their embattled institution, somewhat incongruously amid candle flames casting amber reflections into half-filled glasses of bourbon. They’re in town to support No Labels, the grassroots group devoted to shaming Washington politicians into cooperation. “We’re here because we’d all feel better if we were solving problems and not just fighting,” says Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt.
It is rare in these polarized times for lawmakers to socialize across party lines. It is rarer still for them to agree on anything. But frustration can breed common cause. Bucking a partisan trend, 13 Democrats and 11 Republicans in Congress are charter members of the No Labels caucus.
As their glasses drain, the lawmakers laugh and joke and complete each other’s thoughts about Congress’s unpopularity (they’re embarrassed by it); polarizing House rules; their disappointment with the House leadership; and the haughty, slow-moving Senate. These few, at least, seem desperate to fix Congress.
But it’s not clear they can bridge the gap between hope and reality. They are, after all, partisans. Three Republicans: Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania, Scott Rigell of Virginia, and Ribble of Wisconsin. Six Democrats: Hahn of California; Jim Himes of Connecticut; Daniel Lipinski of Illinois; Kurt Schrader of Oregon; David Cicilline of Rhode Island; and Welch of Vermont. Together, they vote an average of 90 percent of the time along party lines.
Cicilline is the first to arrive at Southgate, and the first to put his finger on the meta-problem. “Congress and U.S. politics in general is the last place in our society where there is no innovation,” he says while waiting for the others. “Every other important institution in our society has changed dramatically or disappeared, except for the way we run elections and govern.”
No Labels is pushing a slate of modest institutional reforms—withholding congressional pay until the federal budget is approved, filibuster reform, and five-day workweeks on Capitol Hill. But, honestly, can good-government types fix Congress? Can anybody? “Well,” Himes says, “it starts with us getting to know one another.” The House gymnasium, he says, is Capitol Hill’s last refuge of comity. Rigell agrees: “That is the most bipartisan place.”
Sitting together at one end of the table, Rigell and Himes now crane their necks to hear Lipinski. “The system,” the Illinois Democrat says, “is set up against doing anything.” Around the black, polished-wood table, every head nods. Lipinski complains that committee staff members are too powerful. “I’ve reached agreement with Republicans [in Congress] and have had their staffers veto” the deal, he says.
Most lawmakers want to change Congress, at least in the abstract, Cicilline says. But real reform on issues such as redistricting, filibusters, and campaign spending are harder won. Like an unwelcome guest, reality silences the table—until Cicilline jump-starts the conversation with the smallest measure of optimism. “By the way,” he says, “just having a chat like this is monumental.”
Still, the grumbling continues. Schrader recalls serving in the Oregon Legislature and getting copies of bills several days before they were put to a vote. He had the chance to read amendments, and he could rely on GOP friends to explain them. Not so in Congress. Bills get dumped late. Amendments are a mystery. And there is little trust across the aisle.
Hahn, the only female lawmaker at the table, makes a point about partisanship: Her district is heavily Democratic, but her pragmatism, not her ideology, determines her popularity. “They are not asking me to stand on my Democratic credentials,” says Hahn, who votes with her party 99 percent of the time. “They’re asking, ‘Can you get anything done there?’ ”
But even if the House gets its act together, Dent tells his colleagues, solutions must be bicameral. “The Senate is the same every day,” he chuckles. “They start slow and wind down from there.” This rocks the table with laughter. Nothing like a good joke at the Senate’s expense.
Levity eventually gives way. Welch says the House ought to do away with ploys such as the “motion to recommit,” a procedure used cynically by both parties to force rivals into virtually indefensible votes. Nothing, it seems, is going to be solved over drinks. Frustration hardens Lipinski’s tone: “How are we going to change the institution?”
The answer, according to No Labels, is a grassroots movement of citizens who back reform-minded lawmakers, because party leaders, donors, and partisan commentators will defend the status quo. These nine lawmakers agree. “We need cover,” mutters one.
The table is cleared. Time for a final question: What if we don’t fix Congress? Silence. Finally, Rigell clears his throat and says, “It would shake the foundations of our country.” The respite had ended, and they step into the cold New York night. Tomorrow, they return to Washington.
This article appears in the January 19, 2013, edition of National Journal Magazine as Pragmatism’s Last Redoubt.