The Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Public Policy and the Social Sciences

Charles Wheelan pens op-ed calling for a permanent bipartisan caucus

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This op-ed was written by Rockefeller Center faculty member Charles Wheelan and Neal Simon, a Maryland business executive and 2018 independent candidate for U.S. Senate. The original article was published on www.smerconish.com and can be found here.

The future of the American Senate, and perhaps our entire political system, is unfolding before our eyes. This is not happening in Georgia. It’s happening in Washington, where a bipartisan group of U.S. senators are working together to support a Covid-19 relief bill.

This bipartisan group should be a permanent feature of American governance: a fulcrum of senators who wield power from the center. Hard on the heels of the Thanksgiving holiday, Republican Senators Bill Cassidy (R-LA), Mitt Romney (R-UT), Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), and Susan Collins (R-ME) worked with Democrats Mark Warner (D-VA), Joe Manchin (D-WV), and independent Angus King (I-ME) to propose a $900 billion COVID relief bill in tandem with the House Problem Solvers Caucus that would help our country out of the pandemic. Now imagine if this group worked together all the time.

Let’s call them the America Caucus.

A permanent bipartisan caucus in the Senate is our best hope of overcoming America’s paralyzing partisanship. There are many potential bills that would have a broad base of support from both parties, like an infrastructure bill or comprehensive immigration reform. The House would be pushed to the center because only bills with the support of the America Caucus would stand a chance of passing the Senate. This would prevent the fringes of both parties from dominating the legislative agenda – less progressive grandstanding and Freedom Caucus chest-pumping.

Here’s an alarming statistic: Over the past seventy years, the share of moderates in congress has fallen from 60 percent to just 12 percent, according to data from Gehl/Porter published by the Harvard Business School Publishing in September 2017. This loss of the center has real-world repercussions – no compromise leads to no legislation. The government fails to govern.

The America Caucus would overcome the worst obstructionist tendencies in the Senate. The caucus members need not abandon their principles; they need only support legislation consistent with those principles, even when other supporters are in a different party.

That is how a country is supposed to govern itself.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell won’t like the America Caucus – nor will Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. It takes power away from leadership. That is a feature of the plan, not a bug.

The majority leader of the Senate can be replaced at any time by a majority of senators who form a caucus to do so. The same is true with the speaker of the House. By denying a majority to Team Red or Team Blue, this caucus of centrists would be the swing vote that determines who is the majority leader.

Pundits have mistakenly come to believe that America’s representatives must do the bidding of their leaders. In reality the opposite is true. The America Caucus would have more control over McConnell or his likely replacement than he has over them.

The America Caucus can offer their support to the Republican agenda if there is a leader committed to moving forward in areas where there is legislative consensus. They can make the same offer to the Democrats. It’s arbitration from the center: Offer us your best leader and we’ll choose. Or alternatively, we’ll put up one of our own.

There are three reasons to believe an America Caucus is feasible. First, a permanent bipartisan caucus would effectively act as a small party in a parliamentary system. These lawmakers would hold the balance of power in the Senate and ally with whichever party advances their interests. Most healthy democracies around the world function with such coalitions, often with center-right and center-left parties working together.

Second, an America Caucus in which members retained their party membership would mimic the Progressive Era, one of the most politically fecund periods in American history. The Progressives were not a new party, but rather a coalition of politicians from different parties with shared interests.

Lastly, it is worth emphasizing that there is already a precedent for this model. The bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus in the House of Representatives has demonstrated that pragmatic Republicans and Democrats can work together on a regular basis. Founded in 2017, this bloc of legislators is equally divided between the two parties and designed with the specific purpose of breaking through partisan gridlock. The size and rules of the Senate would make such a group radically more powerful.

Today, we are facing many challenges. Some are more pressing such as providing significant financial relief during the pandemic. Others are more existential – like confronting China, dealing with climate change, reducing health care costs. A strong, bipartisan caucus in the Senate is our best shot at delivering legislative action on these issues.

There is no structural impediment to establishing this sort of bipartisan fulcrum. Instead, the main impediments are much more moralistic: a lack of courage, cooperation, and creativity in the face of grueling norms or governance.

The America Caucus is the most achievable way to move political power away from the extremes and pass meaningful legislation.

What is the alternative? The Georgia Senate elections are just one more chapter in a book with an ending we already know: another four years of political trench warfare.

When we discussed the idea of a Senate fulcrum with a close friend and longtime lobbyist, he dismissed the idea outright. “Things don’t work that way,” he said.

No, they don’t, so why not change them?

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The Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Public Policy and the Social Sciences