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The Big Fix

If you view the inability of Congress to get much of anything done as a partisan death match interfering with the wondrous workings of the legislative branch, the Fix Congress Now Caucus is right up your alley.

As the public, egged on by the press, grows more and more frustrated with what it sees as the lack of compromise and civility in Congress, Republican Reps. Scott Rigell (Va.) and Reid Ribble (Wis.) and Democratic Reps. Jim Cooper (Tenn.) and Kurt Schrader (Ore.) are looking in the mirror — and seeing some of their colleagues.

With a pledge to “fix Congress now,” the four Members launched the cleverly named Fix Congress Now Caucus in May, with an agenda that includes “reforming the benefits of Congress, addressing the inefficient and unaccountable budgeting process that leaves the country without a budget year after year, and finally, elevating the debate from the bitter partisanship now rampant in Washington,” according to a press release issued by the caucus, which lists 10 members on its website. (Schrader and Cooper are the only Democrats.) 

“Under our Constitution, only Congress has the power to heal itself,” said Cooper, a Blue Dog and outspoken supporter of reintroducing compromise into the Congressional vocabulary. “The president and the Supreme Court can’t do it for us. Now, voters have the power to heal it, but they only get the chance every two years. So Congress needs to embrace reforms.” 

One of the primary solutions Cooper sees to jump-starting Congressional productivity is the No Budget, No Pay Act, a bill he introduced that would withhold pay to Members of Congress until both the House and the Senate agree to a budget and appropriations bills before Oct. 1 of that same fiscal year. 

“Congressional reform is a lot like veterinary medicine,” Cooper said. “You have to get the horse or the dog to take the pill. And it can’t be too big a pill or too distasteful or otherwise they’ll spit it out. And it needs to be strong enough to work. No Budget, No Pay is strong enough to work.”

Ribble said the caucus is a “vehicle to correct the systemic dysfunction that has plagued Washington,” a sentiment that Cooper echoed.

“The caucus is kind of the vanguard of change,” Cooper told Roll Call. “With No Budget, No Pay, we have 51 co-sponsors now in the House and 10 in the Senate, so I think the momentum is there.”

Though Cooper said a number of Members have come forward wanting to participate in the caucus and its mission since the May 16 launch, the group has an uphill battle in seeking to change the status quo. 

For one, caucuses have historically formed around issues for which there is already an identifiable constituency — new ones this year include the Congressional Anti-Bullying Caucus and Congressional Chicken Caucus, for example — rather than acting as the
catalyst for change.

Secondly, the only thing more challenging than getting Members of Congress to pass legislation affecting the nation is getting Members of Congress to pass legislation affecting themselves.

“Congressional reform is a very difficult issue, and it doesn’t happen very often,” said Sarah Binder, a political science professor at George Washington University and a senior fellow at the bipartisanship-loving Brookings Institution. “So the likelihood that a single small caucus with a handful of junior Members is going to make a difference is not great. It’s not to say that these informal or sort of formalized groups can’t make a difference, it’s just that you’re up against some pretty steep barriers and institutional headwinds to any sort of reform.”  

Cooper understands the nature of the battle, but he said the group is eager to press ahead.

“Some Members are more afraid of leadership than others, and Fix Congress Now is likely not going to be popular with each Member,” Cooper said.

That’s a fair assessment. 

A growing number of lawmakers, in fact, don’t accept the narrative that what Congress suffers from is too much partisanship.

Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) have both made this point on multiple occasions, as have other Members.

Indiana GOP Senate candidate Richard Mourdock unseated six-term incumbent Sen. Dick Lugar in a primary last month while running a campaign calling for less compromise. 

Compromise and bipartisanship, runs the counternarrative, are what got us in this mess in the first place. Real differences make for real arguments, and some differences can’t be split.

“We didn’t get to this point because there was gridlock and we didn’t get along,” said Rep. Joe Walsh (R-Ill.), a member of the Fix Congress Now Caucus. “I think the problem is we have Republicans and Democrats who did get along and they just kept willy-nilly increasing government and expanding programs.”

Walsh said he joined the caucus because he wants to speed up the process of getting a budget passed and he thinks the No Budget, No Pay Act and a more civil debate would spur Members to do their jobs. 

“I don’t have a problem with gridlock,” Walsh said. “I think this place needs more gridlock. But you need the gridlock to be as respectful as it can.”

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