How a Bipartisan Caucus Aimed to Change U.S. House Rules
What would happen if the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate became more productive, transparent, and constructive? What if legislators answered only to the best interests of society, instead of to partisan politics? For a few shining moments, the American people would get what a majority say they want: a functioning legislative branch.
While the drama of "divided government" has captured attention and ink, various legislative caucus groups in the House of Representatives have been working to build consensus around issues that a bipartisan majority can agree on. One such group, the Problem Solvers Caucus, seized an opportunity following the 2018 Midterm elections, when the narrow Democratic majority made the outcome of voting for Speaker of the House less than assured. Caucus members were able to leverage their strength in numbers to secure changes in House rules that would make it easier for bipartisan legislation to move from committee to the House floor. Here’s how they did it.
The Caucus first surfaced in 2013, when No Labels, a tax-exempt advocacy organization, encouraged bipartisan conversations and got more than 40 representatives to wear Problem Solver pins to President Obama's State of the Union Address. No Labels staffers had been shocked by how few Republicans and Democrats hung out together, with three-term representatives never having met their neighbors across the hall -- and across the aisle.
“You can only negotiate and get to solutions with people you know and trust," said Ryan Clancy, chief strategist for No Labels, during a phone interview in February.
The Problem Solvers Caucus ramped up activity as one of many active "congressional membership organizations," or CMO's, in 2017, working to build consensus on issues such as health care, infrastructure, gun control, and immigration. After efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act failed in the Senate, the group spent three weeks meeting privately, over beer and tacos, putting ideas on whiteboards, coming up with a draft compromise. Caucus co-chairs Josh Gottheimer, Democrat from New Jersey, and Tom Reed, Republican from New York, co-wrote an op-ed in The New York Times describing their proposals to control healthcare costs.
By 2018, the Problem Solvers Caucus numbered 48, half Democrat, half Republican, each having joined as part of a bipartisan pair, Noah’s-Ark style, one Republican and one Democrat at a time. Members either volunteered or were recruited, Clancy said. They each pledged not to campaign against other members. For instance, Gottheimer couldn’t campaign for Tom Malinowski’s successful 2018 run against former Problem Solver Caucus member Leonard Lance in New Jersey’s 7th district.
Caucus members also agreed to stick together, supporting any legislation that had both the support of 75 percent of its roster, and more than half of its Democrats and Republicans. Representative Lance, a long-time caucus member, described how the group would meet nearly every week, discussing positions on long-range issues. Someone would bring breakfast, nothing elaborate, maybe Dunkin Donuts coffee and Danishes, to caucus gatherings in a basement room in the Rayburn Office Building.
In a recent call hosted by No Labels, Problem Solvers co-chair Reed explained the Caucus’s success: “We stay in the room and we don’t leave til we actually start listening to each other…We’re going to do what it takes until we understand in good faith where each side is coming from.”
Gottheimer added, “We’ve got to find common ground to bring solutions to the people back home. Everything about getting things done in Washington really starts with trust and relationships, and talking with one another about where you agree instead of where you disagree.”
Although some may question the need for off-the-record meetings, others believe that regular, private discussions can create a context for consensus that, in turn, expedites the development of viable legislative proposals. Jane Mansbridge, professor of Political Leadership and Democratic Values at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, suggested in a phone interview that closing Congressional committee meetings can help protect the give-and take needed for drafting new laws.
“Committee members can’t talk openly in [public] meetings, can’t negotiate effectively, and lobbyists are the ones who are sitting there paying attention,” said Mansbridge, the author of Beyond Adversary Democracy (University of Chicago, 1983). “It’s transparency for the lobbyists, but not at all helpful to the American public.”
She favors training congressional staff in negotiations. The Kennedy School and Partnership for America co-sponsor seminars, for example, that teach negotiators to understand their partners' motivations, an aim the Problem Solvers share.
"Get at the interests of the person you’re talking to, rather than just their position,” she said. “What’s the constellation of things they want?...It takes a certain creativity, and you can’t get there unless you can hang out with them.”
But after weeks and months of the 2018 Problem Solvers Caucus helping to develop consensus positions on their four priorities, they saw how related bills did not receive a Congressional hearing, let alone a vote, in part because of House rules that gave the Speaker and committee chairs disproportionate influence over which bills advance to the floor. Under those rules, a Speaker could prevent bills from getting out of committees to broader debate, even if they were sponsored by as many as 290 representatives, or two thirds of the House membership.
To address this impasse, the caucus developed a package of proposed rule reforms entitled “Break the Gridlock,” which was issued on July 26, 2018 over the signature of 36 members.
Some members went further. Following a precedent set in 1923 by a small group of Republicans, fifteen Problem Solvers Caucus members took the risk of vowing, before the midterm elections, not to support any Speaker of the House candidate who would not agree to changing rules that they felt had impeded legislation. Several indicated they would even cross party lines to vote for a speaker-candidate if that person supported the rules changes.
“...It gives a small group of people from the Problem Solvers, who commit to standing up to the leadership ... an opportunity to say, ‘We will not allow the Speaker of the House until we get this rules package done,” said Mike Coffman, caucus member from Colorado, in September, according to Rollcall.com. Two weeks later, the sub-group taking the pledge increased to 19 — 10 Democrats and 9 Republicans.
When the November 5 midterm elections yielded a slim majority for House Democrats, Problem Solvers Caucus members made their move, and affirmed their vow to withhold votes for a new Speaker without guaranteed reforms to House rules. During the frenzied days of organizing the new congress in late November, eight Democratic members -- Gottheimer, Tom O’Halleran of Arizona, Jim Costa of California, Daniel Lipinski of Illinois, Darren Soto and Stephanie Murphy of Florida, Tom Suozzi of New York and Vicente Gonzalez of Texas -- were finally able to obtain assurances from Speaker candidate Nancy Pelosi that a handful of rules would be changed if they supported her. It was November 28, early in the afternoon, the same day the Democratic Caucus started its nominating process.
Here’s how Gottheimer described the “Break the Gridlock” reforms -- some of which were negotiated by other groups -- in an op-ed piece in the New Jersey Herald:
Now, when 290 people co-sponsor a bill, it will automatically get to the House Floor for a debate and vote.
If 20 Democrats and 20 Republicans co-sponsor an amendment…to a piece of legislation, it will get priority consideration for a debate and a vote.
When a majority of a committee supports a bill, that legislation automatically will receive a debate and a vote.
[House] members are now given at least three days to read a piece of significant legislation before a vote can be called. Previously, no minimum time was allowed for review.
In their announcement of the agreements, Pelosi and Rules Committee Ranking Member James P. McGovern also noted that it would now require a group of legislators, not just one, to call for a no-confidence vote in the Speaker.
Gottheimer tweeted about the agreement, saying voters on Election Day had asked for solutions to complex issues such as health care, immigration, and infrastructure. “The rules changes we are announcing today will make the House of Representatives work even better for the American people, and help remove the roadblocks to progress on these core priorities,” he said.
But working with colleagues "across the aisle" also had its perils. Progressive Democratic groups lobbied Pelosi in December to keep Democratic Problem Solvers Caucus members off important committees. She didn’t. Caucus members could also face opposition in their next primaries from less centrist voters at home who don’t support cooperating across party lines.
One of the four New Jersey Democrats to enter the House since the midterm elections, Tom Malinowski, admitted he had poked fun at the frequency with which his opponent, Leonard Lance, had mentioned his membership in the Problem Solvers Caucus. But he acknowledged that the caucus's work across party lines was generally "a good idea.”
“Bipartisan action is key in our democracy,” he said, responding to a question about the caucus's efforts. “It’s essential to find common ground.”
Lance, whom Malinowski defeated, described the Problem Solvers Caucus as the most important congressional group he'd belonged to. “I believe creative policy in the Congress is most likely to occur from the center,” he said, calling the procedural changes enacted by the new congress “one of the greatest achievements” of the group.
“It was a strong power play, because they actually got organized, and it’s easier to get concessions when you work as a group,” said James M. Curry, Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Utah. He noted that Pelosi herself had needed to win over House members, like many Caucus members who hail from swing districts.
Meanwhile, Problem Solvers Caucus members are meeting regularly with members of the Senate, including Sen. Susan Collins (Me.) and Sen. Joe Manchin (WV.) Their hope? To foster the goals of putting consensus over party loyalty and working together on legislation that benefits the most citizens, despite partisan pressure. As more voters understand that resolving complex issues requires a long-term commitment to problem solving, perhaps bipartisan efforts in the 116th congress will become bicameral as well.
About the Author
Tina Kelley, a former New York Times reporter, is the co-author of Almost Home: Helping Kids Move from Homelessness to Hope (Turner, 2012) and is based in Maplewood, NJ.
Additional information - Ed.
U.S. House of Representatives caucuses are officially known as CMOs, or Congressional Membership Organizations. The most recent Congress had more than 500 caucuses. Link to the House Administration Committee's full list of caucuses here.
Of 22 "divided" U.S. governments since 1955, seven had a "divided congress" with different party majorities in the House and Senate; 15 had the same party majorities in the House and Senate with the U.S. President a member of the other party.
(Reporting for this article was made possible by a “Renewing Democracy” grant from the Solutions Journalism Network.)