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.