No Labels. No Agenda. Some Hope

Why, in one centrist group, Republicans and Democrats are talking to each other

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Illustration by Oliver Munday for TIME

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You may be forgiven for thinking, How incredibly pathetic. And also for thinking, How did it get this bad? Actually, it's been a 40-year process. Former Republican House minority leader Bob Michel once told me that things started going downhill when committee meetings moved from long narrow tables, where Republicans and Democrats had to look directly at each other, to fancy banquettes, where the members sit, segregated, facing in the same direction--toward the television cameras. There's more to it than that, obviously. There's the rise of special-interest money. There's gerrymandering, which has become a noxious computerized art, producing more than 300 "safe" districts--safe for re-election, if you strictly adhere to the whims of your party's most extreme zealots. There was Newt Gingrich, who saw politics as war by other means and almost single-handedly destroyed the comfy "my esteemed colleague" collegiality of the House. And then there was the lockstep liberalism of the assorted identity caucuses. And then there was the Tea Party.

Given the paralysis, the No Labels crowd has decided that the proper therapy is baby steps. The Problem Solvers have agreed only to meet, not necessarily to back anything substantive. They do support two rather snappy procedural proposals. The first is called No Budget, No Pay. Congress hasn't actually adopted a budget resolution since 2009. Representative Jim Cooper, a Tennessee Democrat, figured that if his colleagues couldn't perform the most basic function of their job by the beginning of a fiscal year, they shouldn't be paid. The second idea, also snappy, is the Five-Day Workweek. Most members show up on Monday nights, leave on Thursday nights and spend the rest of their time in their districts, raising money and raising money.

Yes, again: laughably pathetic but memorable enough, perhaps, to make an impression on the public. There are, of course, grander dreams beyond the baby steps. "Once we start meeting together, there's some low-hanging fruit that most Democrats and Republicans agree on," says Congressman Peter Welch, a Vermont Democrat. And there is the higher-hanging fruit, like entitlement reform, that may become more accessible if relationships, and trust, are built. Such modest moderation merits, I believe, a molecule of hope.

TO READ JOE'S BLOG POSTS, GO TO time.com/swampland

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