Congress has desperately needed a counterbalance to the Freedom Caucus, the hard-right alliance of members whose rigid inflexibility has tied Washington in knots for several years. Now, it may have one, thanks in large part to the vision of Rep. Tom Reed, R-Corning.
Together with Rep. Josh Gottheimer, a freshman Democrat from New Jersey, Reed has refreshed the Problem Solvers Caucus, turning it from little more than a bumper sticker into a force with the potential to exert real influence. It’s a bipartisan approach whose members want – or, at least, say they want – to deal with issues rather than just obstruct or, in the worst cases, hold a knife to the throat of the government.
Reed, a former tea party candidate, has moved more toward the center in recent years, both through a citizens group called No Labels and the previous incarnation of Problem Solvers. The first effort, though, turned out to be mainly for show. It lacked any commitment to the goals it professed.
But with Reed and Gottheimer reinvigorating the organization, it has developed muscle. Its promise now is to vote as a bloc, just as the Freedom Caucus does, in an effort to produce broadly acceptable solutions to issues where action is too often blocked by congressional extremists. Its rules require a balance of Republicans and Democrats.
Predictably, that change in approach cost the caucus a share of its members: Not everyone has the nerve it takes to solve problems in a contentious time. That change to bloc voting initially reduced membership to 30 from around 80, but it has since risen to 43, according to Reed.
That compares favorably to the Freedom Caucus’ membership of around 30, though with Republicans in control of Congress, the Problem Solvers’ influence is unlikely to be as significant. Given the Freedom Caucus’ role within the majority party, it has been able to leverage its influence, becoming the tail that wags the willing dog.
The difference is that the Problem Solvers Caucus is seeking to find solutions, not to tear down or merely block. First on its agenda has been to look for a way to prevent the Affordable Care Act from collapsing in the disruptive wake of Congress’ impotence on health care and President Trump’s hostility to the law.
Sustained by pizza, tacos and beverages of undisclosed potency, members of the bipartisan caucus put together legislation aimed at stabilizing the market for individual health plans. Their approach would make federal subsidies permanent and create a fund that states can use to reduce premiums. That appeals to Democrats, while Republicans like the piece that ends the requirement that small businesses provide insurance to their employees, and abolishes the medical device tax. It’s what compromise is about.
While the actual effect of the proposals is uncertain, it is encouraging that members of opposite parties are talking with, instead of shouting past, each other. And they’re not alone.
Governors are getting into the act, too. They are helping to fill the vacuum created by an ineffective Congress and an unreliable president. Govs. John Kasich, R-Ohio, and John Hickenlooper, D- Colo., are also joining forces in an effort to stabilize the markets for individual health insurance. It’s a natural consequence of Congress’ decision to be ineffective.
And, make no mistake, that was the decision. Anytime the opposition is ignored – and even vilified – the ability to function is undermined. Congress has been working that way for too long, choking off its own oxygen supply and clearing the way for other power centers to move in.
A change has been needed for years, and it is pleasing that a congressman whose district includes parts of Western New York is leading that way. It will be to the country’s benefit if the Problems Solvers can expand its influence. Two good places for that to happen are in the 26th and 27th Congressional Districts of New York, occupied by Democrat Brian Higgins and Republican Chris Collins. They should join or explain to constituents why they would object.