i3 | June 25, 2019

The Problem Solvers Caucus: Reps. Josh Gottheimer and Tom Reed

Cindy Loffler Stevens

The political gridlock in Washington, D.C., has turned many opportunities for lawmakers to work together into an impasse. Fortunately, the Problems Solvers Caucus, is working to change this negative narrative and create positive change.

In 2017, the Problem Solvers Caucus became an independent member-driven House caucus, co-chaired by Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-NJ) and Rep. Tom Reed (R-NY). The 44-member group focuses on developing relationships across the aisle to find bipartisan solutions to legislative and policy issues. In late 2018, the Problem Solvers led the effort to make important changes to House rules, clearing the way for debate and votes on more bipartisan bills in the next Congress.

The caucus has many examples of bipartisan accomplishments. Since its creation the Caucus has proposed or supported bipartisan proposals on health care, infrastructure, immigration, border security, and gun safety, and was a participant in budget negotiations.

Rep. Gottheimer and Rep. Reed recently met with CTA President and CEO Gary Shapiro in the Cannon House Office Building to talk about their work with the Problem Solvers Caucus. This interview has been edited for length.

How was the Problem Solvers Caucus formed?

Reed: In 2012, we started a bipartisan group, the Problem Solvers Caucus 1.0, to meet people and develop relationships. But then we realized that people were just talking the talk – not walking the walk. They were not truly trying to find compromise and come together. Then, a subgroup of us got together to work with No Labels, during the presidential campaign, to formalize this. We said, “We need to make sure that when we commit to the caucus, it’s not being used for political talking points as a campaign thing.” Because people in the caucus were out throwing bombs on the floor of the House at members that we were trying to develop relationships with. In 2016, Josh came in and I couldn’t think of a better partner. We formalized the caucus, adopted our bylaws and what we call Problem Solvers Caucus 2.0 informally, came into existence. That is when we made the commitments to each other.

How does it work?

Gottheimer: Today, conversations between parties are not encouraged – they are discouraged – and there are a lot of outside forces in play. The extremes on both sides are very loud and get most of the attention. We used to be encouraged to find a solution where if you got 80 percent of what you want, you can move forward. Our whole job is to “get to yes” versus focusing on what we disagree on. It’s tough to spend 30 or 40 or 50 hours in a room together trying to figure out where we agree. If you don’t trust each other and if you don’t have those relationships, you can’t have those conversations to get to an 80 percent solution. Whether it is infrastructure or the debt or prescription drugs – you name it – to take on these issues, you have to actually talk to each other and put country ahead of party. I always say, I don’t work for a national political party, I work for my district, which – when we get elected, we all understand – is part of our job. And people give us grief, as you might imagine. It’s not always easy.

What are the commitments?

Reed: Primarily it is an invite-only caucus, so you need to be approved by the membership. You can’t just put it on your resume. You have to agree to the bylaw commitments. If we get to one consensus position where 51 percent has Democratic support or 51 percent has Republican support, with an overarching 75 percent consensus support for an issue, we will vote the block. When you can bring a group of 44 members and get to that consensus position, that highly influences the legislative agenda since you need 218 to pass any legislation. And you can’t campaign against a fellow member of the Problem Solvers Caucus. We also have attendance requirements – you have to participate. This is the only area in Washington, D.C., where Democrats and Republicans come together in a culture of trust and in a cone of silence because we don’t leak what we are doing. We have formed a bond with these members that is a mile deep now. And that is critical to withstanding the headwinds that come down the road.

Can you talk about your successes?

Reed: We found that if we work really hard, we can get to a consensus position of 75 percent. We got to a position on health care, immigration, school safety, infrastructure – some very difficult policy issues. The problem is because the institution itself, the House of Representatives, has become such a top-down driven organization that is controlled by one to four people, it’s all being pushed up to the top office leadership. You could have 434 people read a piece of legislation, but the rules of the House and how the House governs prevent that bill from coming to the floor for an open and honest debate and an up or down vote on it with substance. Last year we said we would not support a speaker candidate in either party who did not support reforming the rules of the House to encourage that type of debate and allow members to bring their ideas forward. If they got consensus from both positions, then they were guaranteed to have that on the floor regardless of what leadership said. And it’s working. It’s changing how the institution works. Kudos to Josh, and the Democratic individuals in particular, who withstood tremendous pressure to withhold that support until those reforms were agreed to.

Will the rules change because of this caucus?

Gottheimer: Yes, people weren’t thrilled as we were going through it. Because we were basically saying, we are willing to put our belief that we need to find broad bipartisan support for a chance to be heard and voted on the house floor. We kept having legislation, where we had enough votes off the floor – the last congress had 33 bills with over 300 cosponsors – but never got a debate or a vote. We would work really hard to build the coalitions and build the support. We had a state-wide individual marketplace for health care, we worked five months for a path for dreamers and tough borders, but we couldn’t get a vote on the House floor. We finally said, “If we build bipartisan support for something, it should be heard.” And that is what our reforms are about – to try and change the institution and allow things to get to the floor and not let a few extremists or a few obstructionists block it.

Traditionally, can any chair of a committee block legislation?

Reed: Yes, but it’s even worse now to be honest with you. It has been driven out of the committees and this is a Republican and Democrat agenda that was started years ago with Newt Gingrich and then Nancy Pelosi perfected it. Committee chairs still have a tremendous amount of influence, but even more has been sent up to the speaker’s office and it is all about political posturing. Ninety-nine percent is asking themselves, “How are we going to posture this into the next election cycle to either win the majority or maintain the majority?” If politics is the driving priority, then in my humble opinion the policy that we came here to do to help the American people gets sidetracked. And that is a problem. If we don’t fix this moving forward, we are going to get bogged down in perpetuity.

Gottheimer: But the good news is, we had some very good wins last year. We had the opioids legislation moving forward that we got behind and criminal justice reform. In fact, Tom and I went to the White House earlier this week. It was a great bipartisan piece of legislation that we were able to help on.

Reed: We united as a caucus on prison reform. Jared Kushner, Grover Norquist and Van Jones reached out to us, along with Hakeem Jeffries, and asked, “Is this an issue that you can help us with?” We got behind that bipartisan initiative and by helping them push it through the House and Senate it was actually signed into law. It wasn’t exactly our bill, but it was that power of a block of votes that was pushing that legislation through the system.

What issues are you looking at now?

Reed: From a substantive perspective, the two highest level headline issues are infrastructure and drug pricing in my opinion.

Gottheimer: We also have some other initiatives coming up including the 911 bill that we are getting behind with compensation for first responders. There is some work on the BDS [Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions] Movement that could be influential. The caucus is a group that is becoming known as the go-to place to see if you can get some bipartisan support.

How do you get your message out?

Gottheimer: People should ask their member of Congress if they are a member of the Problem Solvers Caucus. We do expect certain things from our members, so I get that it is not for everyone, but ultimately, the requirement is that you want to work with the other side to get things done. It’s very hard because there is so much noise from the extremes, and because it makes better cable news if people scream at each other and disagree. It’s harder for people to know what we are doing, so the more people that pass it along, the better.

Reed: We often get branded as a moderate ideological type of group. But we have members that represent some very left-leaning and some very right-leaning districts. They have a commitment to govern and find common ground and they are willing to roll up their sleeves. Some have gotten into some very passionate disagreements about issues. But at the end of the day, they are committed to the concept of governing, so they stay in the room and work out their differences where they can. It is a tremendous amount of work but it all stems from trust, respect and a commitment to getting there.

When you join the caucus, do you bring in someone from the other side?

Gottheimer: Typically, we help them but that is part of the relationship building. You identify somebody who you already have the seeds of a relationship with when you come into the caucus. The good thing is there is a line of members that are interested in being a part of this. But if your primary purpose is not to really engage but to play a political game, you are going to ruin our brand and you are going to ruin that culture of trust that we have worked so hard to build. We are very sensitive about that. We make sure that when members come in, they know what they are getting involved with and make sure they are fully committed to it.

How can CTA members support the Problem Solvers Caucus?

Reed: What you can do to help us, in my humble opinion, is you represent some 2,200 of the loudest voices across the country – especially the emerging voices that are the influencers of tomorrow as well as today. Use that voice. Talk to your members of Congress. Talk to leadership. Don’t be afraid of this, don’t push back on this. This is good for the country – it’s good to have that debate and encourage it. And I tell you, those 2,200 voices that you represent really have an opportunity to change how this place works.

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