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Some Lawmakers Want To Put Politics Aside


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Later this hour, we will take a moment to remember a pioneering journalist and mentor, the irreplaceable Helen Thomas, who died over the weekend at the age of 92. Helen had a lifelong passion for politics and policy and for asking the political leaders the tough questions. But these days, many people have tough questions for our leaders in Washington, or one in particular, and that is, why can't the two political parties in Washington work together? Why can't they get anything done?

Well, some members of Congress say they are also frustrated. More than 70 members of Congress from both parties have joined a group called No Labels. That's a coalition of officeholders from every level of government who are trying to develop legislation they think both parties can get behind. We wanted to know more about that, so we're joined now by Congressman Reid Ribble. He's a Republican. He represents Wisconsin's 8th district, which includes Green Bay and Appleton. Also with us, Congressman Jim Cooper. He is a Democrat. He represents Tennessee's 5th district, which includes Nashville. They were both kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studios. Thank you both so much for joining us.


CONGRESSMAN JIM COOPER: Thank you. Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: This is a group, as I mentioned, that we've actually covered before, that a lot of legislators from below the ballot, as we say, state lawmakers, mayors, have joined previously. What made each of you want to be part of this? And I don't know, Congressman Ribble, you want to start?

RIBBLE: You know, for me, I came to Congress in 2010 with the Republican wave there. And when I arrived early in January of 2011, it didn't take me long to figure out that you find yourself in the position of being sequestered. They put us in our own rooms. Republicans go to their rooms, and Democrats go to their rooms.

And you almost have to find opportunities and ways to actually reach out and talk and meet your colleagues across the aisle. And the way Jim and I ended up arriving here, at this place, is that we kind of found each other and began to build a friendship based on the fact that some of my family live in Nashville. We're starting to find places where we agree.

MARTIN: Congressman Cooper?

COOPER: There's too little trust within Congress and we need to change that, because the American people do not have trust in Congress, period, unless we start getting along and solving problems. And that's what we're all about is common sense, solving problems. Reid is a very strong Republican. I'm a Democrat, but he's one of the nicest guys I've ever met. Half his family lives down in Tennessee now. I'm proud of that. And there are many, many things we can agree on.

MARTIN: How bad is it? I mean, we are told - in fact, I heard Senator Roger Wicker from Mississippi say the other day that he doesn't even have lunch with Democrats on an ongoing basis. And I have been told by other members of your body that it has been even frowned upon to seek out members of the other party in the House dining room to sit with at lunch time. I mean, members have told me that. Is that true?

COOPER: Well, in the old days that was not true. This is a relatively new phenomenon in the last five, 10 years as the extreme partisanship has flourished. But we got to change that. We got to go back to the old days when people put America first, when we tried to get along. The No Labels group is doing that. There are almost 80 of us now. It's growing every day. More and more common sense members in both parties are getting together and saying, hey, let's fix this.

MARTIN: You know, there's a Gallup poll that says that nearly four in five Americans - this is in June - 80 percent of them - 78 percent disapprove of the way Congress is handling its job. The number one reason cited was party gridlock, bickering, not compromising. But from a different perspective - and Congressman Ribble, maybe I'll direct this to you, from a different perspective - if you disagree with what is being done, then stopping it could be a matter of principle.

Some people, let's say, might argue that stopping something that you think is bad policy is just as important as advancing something that's good policy. So what do you say to your constituents who say, if I don't like X, I want you to bring gridlock, I want you to shut things down.

RIBBLE: Well, there is a legitimate place for gridlock, I mean, let's face it, our founders set up a system that, to a certain degree, forced us to find agreement, and literally said, if you can't find agreement, maybe it's better not to do that. But we've discovered as we've got to know each other and build trust between ourselves and some of our colleagues that agreement can be found if you're willing to look for it. So we ought to, where we can find agreement, go do those things.

MARTIN: Is the primary issue policy or personality or trust, as we say, I mean, the idea that there's not enough personal trust between individual members? Or is it ideology, philosophy and whatever the construct is gets you there to begin with?

COOPER: This is Congressman Cooper, Michel. It's really both, because if somebody's a stranger, it's easier to treat them as the other and the enemy. And there's too much of that, 'cause today, with a part-time Congress, we're only here a couple days a week. We barely know each other, we certainly don't know our spouses' names or kids' names. That makes it very easy to stigmatize other people. And the essence of trust is respect. You have to respect the other person, and then when you do that, you can see that 80 percent of issues we probably agree on. We're going to fight on the other 20, but let's get the 80 percent done.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with Congressman Reid Ribble of Wisconsin and Congressman Jim Cooper of Tennessee. They're both members of a group called No Labels. It's a group of political leaders and actors across the political spectrum who are trying to come together to end gridlock in Washington and also elsewhere in the political arena. So let's talk about some of the substance of - you've got nine ideas. Do you want to just pick a couple that you consider most important? Congressman Cooper?

COOPER: Well, I helped lead the no budget, no pay effort, which is essential to get the work done of Congress. The Senate hadn't passed a budget in five years. We got this law passed, and suddenly, miraculously, the Senate passed a budget. So threatening Congressman with no pay really got a lot done. We need to do that in some other issues. We face the debt ceiling crisis coming up. I would say that Congress shouldn't be paid if we allow America to default on its credit.

That would be a huge embarrassment for America and would raise interest rates forever. But there're lot of folks who are wanting to play chicken on that, so there are other proposals. Lot of them are common sense and easy, like we should have medical records that speak to each other, whether you're active duty, military or veteran. We need budgeting that actually works, and many of us are looking at a two year budget now, because we're not doing it on an annual basis properly. We need more time than that. So a lot of basic things, and surely we can agree on these and build confidence for future, bigger measures.

MARTIN: Congressman Ribble, do you want to pick up something from the package that you're particularly interested in?

RIBBLE: Yeah, you know, Congressman Cooper talked about no budget, no pay, and one of the bills that I've been working on is the biannual budgeting that he alluded to. Right now, we've not passed - since I've been in Congress - we've not had a concurrent budget resolution between a bicameral system, where both the House and Senate had each their budgets' passed, nor have we gotten all of our appropriation bills done on time. And so we recognize that there's a constriction point here where we're not getting that work on time. And if we can't get the basics done, budget and appropriations on time, how can we ever do proper oversight to see that once the budget's established, that agencies are actually following it.

What this does is it extends it to Congress, saying over this two-year period, we're going to do budgeting and appropriations in the first year, oversight in the second, and what we learn in that second year, we apply then to the third year with the new budget cycle. And I'm proud to say that my Democrat colleagues have come alongside me and have begun to cosponsor this, and we now have 79 cosponsors on this bill, and the Senate did a House, kind of a sense of Senate vote a few weeks ago, and it passed with 68 votes over in the Senate. So this could be something that actually could become law.

MARTIN: You know, it's curious that the public expresses such dissatisfaction with the workings of Congress, and yet they keep reelecting you all.

RIBBLE: That speaks to gerrymandering of districts. I mean, you talk about the political dysfunction, if you're coming from a district that's 80 percent Republican or 80 percent Democrat, your big problem is whether you're going to be primaried or not. The very nature pushes you to the perimeter of the political spectrum, just by virtue of the people you're giving voice to. I think the American people have a misperception of elections. We're at a place now in this country where voters are not picking their representatives anymore. Representatives, through the gerrymandering process and redistricting, are picking their voters.

MARTIN: Each of you are operating in an environment where you feel that people are critical of you for compromising. Presumably those are people in your own caucus, right, or people on your own side, voters, who would be critical of you? So what are you prepared to say to those people in support of this initiative? So Congressman Ribble, you want to start?

RIBBLE: Yeah, the thing that I've asked when I've been challenged about my work at No Labels by folks, well-intentioned folks that want to see good things happen in government from their political ideology, in this case from the right, I asked them this question, what is it that you so lack confidence in what you believe in that you're fearful to have me take what you believe into the arena of debate and ideas and present it and try to convince people, or persuade people, that we have the right idea here. Because that's really what they're saying. If they say to me, just take the Republican agenda and either cram it down their throats or just talk to other Republicans, what have I really accomplished? We should not be fearful of what we believe in. We should be, with a certain level of boldness and confidence, go out and proclaim what we believe and then let it carry its own weight.

MARTIN: What do you say, Congressman Cooper?

COOPER: Almost everywhere I go back home in Tennessee, and people are thrilled that we're getting along with each other, because Tennesseans are fair, moderate, decent folks. They understand that in any marriage, any job, you got to compromise to get along. My wife and I have been married 28 years, and we disagree on plenty of things, but we've been married 28 years. So people understand that back home, and they want us to behave in Washington. Issues can get complicated, and I worry about our degraded media environment. That's one reason I'm thankful for NPR and your listeners who are informed and know what's going on, 'cause there's so many people out there who just enjoy getting angry instead of understanding the issue.

MARTIN: If we get together a year from now, what kind of conversation do you think we'll have about this issue?

COOPER: I think we'll have a larger group of No Labels. I think we'll have several of our initiatives having passed. And I think you'll see a better country.

MARTIN: Congressman Ribble, final thought?

RIBBLE: As a former businessperson, I see a lot of friction points in our economy, whether it's with trade policy or taxes or what have you, but one of the biggest points is political dysfunction. The American people have lost confidence in their government, and they feel uncertain about the future. It's our responsibility to stand up and begin to fix these things, and that's what Congressman Cooper and I are working on.

MARTIN: Congressman Reid Ribble is a Republican. He represents Wisconsin's 8th district. Congressman Jim Cooper is a Democrat. He represents Tennessee's 5th district. They're both members of a group called No Labels, and they were both kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studios. Gentlemen, thank you both so much for speaking with us.

RIBBLE: Thanks, Michel.

COOPER: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: And I hope you'll take me up on my challenge and come back a year from now so we can talk about this.

COOPER: Amen, happy to.

RIBBLE: We'll be there. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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