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Issue No. 113 (December 2007) -- Mark Satin, Editor
There is a radical middle in Congress
. . . and its stars are Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME) and Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ)
Is there a group of radical middle or post-partisan legislators in the U.S. Congress?
Can some members of Congress be trusted to regularly take good ideas from ALL political points of view, and meld them into legislation that’s at once pragmatic and imaginative, cost-effective and far-seeing?
According to 21 thinkers and activists we polled earlier this month, the answer is a resounding “YES!”
They not only identified Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME) and Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ) as the best radical-centrist members of Congress.
They threw the spotlight on 19 other members of Congress as well -- suggesting that a viable and effective Congressional radical-middle may be at hand.
Scorecard with a difference
For decades, liberal and conservative interest groups have been creating “scorecards” of members of Congress.
After the 107th and 108th sessions of Congress (2001-04), Radical Middle Newsletter created its own scorecards -- see HERE and HERE. But because few genuinely radical-middle bills ever came to a vote, we were forced to look mainly at co-sponsors of radical-middle legislation.
Unfortunately, co-sponsorships are not always reliable as a measure of conviction. For example, sometimes they’re simply friendly favors to Congresspeople, or to hard-working staffers with strong convictions.
Also, much of the most effective radical-middle and post-partisan work takes place behind the scenes, where it’s never recorded in a measurable way.
So for the 109th and 110th sessions of Congress (2005-present), we decided to do something different.
We decided to try to get a more trustworthy and “insider” view of who the radical-middle Congresspeople are.
This month, we invited leading radical-middle and post-partisan thinkers and activists to name “up to 10 members of Congress whom you feel have been sympathetic and helpful over the last three years.”
Portrait of our “judges”
Twenty-one thinkers and activists responded to our invitation.
We promised them anonymity (a necessity, since most of them are continuing to interact with Congressional offices), but this can give you some idea of their stature and expertise:
That’s an “A-list” by anyone’s measure.
Our 21 judges cast 105 votes in all -- an average of five each -- and an extraordinary 71 members of Congress received one or more votes.
In other words, over 13% of Congress is already arguably radical-middle!
But the votes were concentrated among 21 Senators and Representatives. On the Senate side, the winners were:
Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME), 6 votes
Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME), 3 votes
Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), 2 votes
And on the House side, the winners were:
Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ), 4 votes
Rep. Artur Davis (D-AL), 3 votes
Rep. Jeff Flake (R-AZ), 2 votes
Collective portrait of the winners
The 21 winners come from both parties. Eleven are Democrats, but nine are Republicans and one is Independent. And the biggest vote-getter by far -- Sen. Snowe -- is a Republican.
More noteworthy is the demographic composition of the nine members of Congress who received three or more votes. Two are women, two are African-American (Davis and Obama), and one is Hispanic (Salazar). The radical middle may be America’s future in more ways than one.
Age-wise, our 21 winners cover the spectrum. Seven predate the Vietnam generation, seven were born from 1944-48, and seven were born in the 1950s or 1960s.
Whatever their ages, our winners exude competence. When Time magazine named “America’s Ten Best Senators” last year, four of our 11 Senate winners -- Durbin, McCain, Snowe, and Specter -- were on that list (see HERE).
Why Snowe and Holt stand out
Snowe and Holt are as multifaceted and accomplished as their top-of-the-charts positions would lead you to suspect.
Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME, b. 1947) was not raised with a silver spoon in her mouth. She’s a first-generation immigrant; her parents came from Greece. Her mother died of breast cancer when she was eight, and her father died of heart disease a year later. She was then taken in by her aunt and uncle -- a barber and a textile mill worker, respectively.
Eventually she earned a poli sci degree from the University of Maine and began making her way up the political ladder. When radical activists like me were fomenting “revolution,” she was getting herself elected to the Maine Board of Voter Registration; when radical activists like me were going back to school, she was entering the Maine House of Representatives. She won election to the U.S. House in 1978, and to the U.S. Senate in 1994.
Along the way, she’s managed to balance many divergent and important interests. In the U.S. House, for example, she served on the Budget Committee (where she was a stickler for fiscal responsibility); at the same time, she co-chaired the Congressional Caucus on Women’s Issues. For the last few years she’s tried to turn the Senate Centrist Coalition -- which she co-founded -- into a vehicle for bringing Republicans and Democrats together.
Rep. Russ Holt (D-NJ, b. 1948) is equally impressive. His radical-middle stance comes naturally to him -- he’s the only Quaker now in Congress. At Swarthmore College (a Quaker school) from 1980-88, he taught physics and public policy and religion -- an intellectual trifecta!
Holt’s background is unusual in another way too: he’s one of the few Ph.D.s in Congress (it’s in physics, from NYU). From 1989 until his election to Congress in 1998, he was assistant director of Princeton University’s Plasma Physics Lab, the university’s largest research facility and one of the largest centers for research in alternative energy in the U.S. He’s done his own alternative-energy research and even holds his own patent for a solar energy device. That gives him immense credibility as an alternative-energy advocate.
Scientific American magazine named him one of 50 national “visionaries” contributing to a “brighter technological future,” but his political interests go well beyond high-tech. For example, he’s taken the lead on legislation to make U.S. vote counts more reliable.
Other winners in the Senate
Our other winners all had obvious radical-centrist accomplishments under their belts. For example:
Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) - was a proud member of the bipartisan “Gang of 14,” which kept the Senate from tearing itself apart over Bush’s judicial nominees two years ago, and could still resurface in other contexts;
Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) - “has taken leadership on radical middle initiatives we’ve worked on,” emailed one of our voters, a global-affairs lobbyist on Capitol Hill;
Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) - not only ran his last Senate race as an Independent, but won with support from Democrats, independents, and -- even -- a majority of Republicans;
Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) - “did not respond to his fatherlessness or his racial predicament with anger and rage,” writes New York Times columnist David Brooks, “but as questions for investigation, conversation and synthesis. He approaches politics the same way” (cf. our review of Obama’s political memoir HERE);
Sen. Ken Salazar (D-CO) -- “Honorary Senate Chair” of Third Way, a sort of successor to the Senate New Democrat Coalition. “Salazar and Lindsay Graham (R-SC) have been Senators with an open mind toward finding common ground solutions,” emailed one of our voters, a longtime partisan operative recently converted to post-partisan politics. “They deserve some recognition for a willingness to break their parties’ orthodoxy in search of answers”;
Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) - “Alexander and Mark Pryor (D-AR) and their staffs have been at the forefront of a quiet multi-year effort to re-establish member and staff informal groups that facilitate easy dialogue on the issues,” continued that same voter. “[They all know that,] without common ground, nothing of substance can happen”;
Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-NE) - attended a meeting organized by the American Iranian Council earlier this year intended to deepen scholars’ and policymakers’ understanding of Iran. Is chair of the Agent Orange Settlement Fund and board member of Bread for the World. In 2005, compared the Iraq war to the Vietnam war and said, “To question your government is not unpatriotic -- to not question your government is unpatriotic”;
Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) - has “made the evils of polarization a central ingredient of [his] message [for] 2008,” say Cal Thomas and Bob Beckel in their book Common Ground: How to Stop the Partisan War That Is Destroying America (2007);
Sen. Ben Nelson (D-NE) - has consciously carved out for himself what he happily calls “a bipartisan role in a bitterly partisan Washington environment.” Has also courageously tried to pass what he calls a “circuit breaker,” a safety mechanism to guard against a return to federal deficits;
Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA) - often derided as a RINO (“Republican in Name Only”), but the leadership of neither major party appreciates his principled advocacy of the flat tax, supported by this newsletter HERE;
Other winners in the House
Rep. Artur Davis (D-AL) -- “Honorary House Chair” of Third Way, and Vice-Chair of the House New Democrat Coalition. “Has made a good impression on me as a moderate with good ideas,” emailed one of our voters, co-founder of an important creative-centrist Blog;
Rep. Jim Moran (D-VA) - militantly internationalist and free-trade-oriented Democrat. Was arrested last year in front of the Sudanese embassy for protesting the role of Sudan’s government in ethnic cleansing in Darfur. Has publicly criticized the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC);
Rep. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) - “no Republican myself, I love what this guy is doing to combat earmarks [pork barrel projects],” emailed one of our voters, head of an imaginative nonprofit (and former civil liberties lobbyist);
Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) - was named one of Congress’ “Top Visionaries” in 2003 by this newsletter (see HERE). After the 2006 election, suggested "a sort of 'grand bargain' between business and liberals to mesh economic security with economic growth policies," says Ed Gresser in his book Freedom from Want (2007);
Rep. Jay Inslee (D-WA) - “has done more than anyone to create a legislative vehicle for clean energy investment,” emailed one of our voters, chair of an important radical-centrist think tank. “He’s a creative guy and willing to take risks which these days puts you pretty high on my list”;
Rep. Mark Kirk (R-IL) - cosponsor with Rep. Rick Larsen (D-WA) of the forward-looking “U.S.-China Competitiveness Agenda.” Would expand our diplomatic infrastructure in China, boost support to small- and medium-sized U.S. businesses exporting to the China market, increase funds for domestic Chinese language instruction, and build new energy ties between the U.S. and China;
Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA) - “cares about telecommunications in a savvy way," emailed one of our voters, an experienced Washington DC journalist. “Tries to work with Republicans to forge progress on meaningful issues, although sometimes the GOP sells him out”;
Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) - upon her election as Speaker of the House in November 2006, pledged to work with Republicans “to come to some common ground”;
Rep. Jim Ramstad (R-MN) - introduced a wonderful mental health parity bill (with Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-RI), then spent much of last spring crisscrossing the U.S. touting the merits of the legislation.
A couple of our respondents reminded us that members of Congress may not be the most important radical-centrist players -- even on Capitol Hill.
“Comptroller-General David Walker -- head of the Government Accountability Office (GAO) -- deserves much credit for his evolving GAO into doing oversight, insight, and foresight, and his ‘fiscal wake-up tour,’” emailed one respondent, president of a major futurist think-tank.
“Not in Congress, but a good example of ‘from the middle’ is immigration reformer Frank Sharry," emailed another of our respondents, CEO of an international organization doing pioneering political work. Behind the scenes, as executive director of a small nonprofit, Sharry has spent years trying to help Democrat and Republican lawmakers learn from one another on immigration.
The results of our poll demonstrate, incontrovertibly, that there are dozens of dedicated radical-centrist and post-partisan members of Congress. (Arguably there are at least 71, since our 21 well-informed voters named a total of 71.)
The question that remains, though, is how effective those members have been . . . either in promoting radical-centrist ideas or in converting such ideas into passable legislation.
Sadly, the answer can only be NOT VERY
Radical-centrist members of Congress have not been nearly as effective as the vitality and relevance of their ideas might suggest. Just click on our scorecard for the 108th Congress (2003-04), which focuses on dozens of admirable radical-centrist bills that never made it out of committee, let alone to a floor vote.
Two responses are needed to this sad and urgent state of affairs -- one from within Congress, one from without.
What members of Congress can do
Radical-middle members of Congress need to become more conscious of one another, more visible, and -- above all -- more cooperative.
That is a strategy Sen. Snowe is pursuing both through and outside the confines of what used to be called and is still occasionally called the Senate Centrist Coalition. But it’s not easy.
For example, Sen. Lieberman is reportedly breaking away from Snowe’s centrist group to form a different group with Sens. Alexander and Pryor (see the remarks under Sen. Alexander above). Then again, he may not actually be breaking with Snowe’s group . . . maybe he’s just interested in forming a complementary and less exclusively centrist group.
And why shouldn’t he? After all, should a group that’s dedicated to listening to and learning from everyone’s good ideas be calling itself “centrist”? (Creative centrism -- aka radical centrism -- is increasingly calling itself “post-partisanship” or “transpartisanship”; see our article HERE.). Lieberman spokesman and former radical-centrist blogger Marshall Wittman has stated, correctly, that many Senators “may not want to go to [Snowe’s] group because they don’t identify themselves as centrists.”
Meanwhile, Snowe has stated that she wants to rename the Centrist Coalition for that very reason.
And, meanwhile, the Bipartisan Policy Center has sprung up. Is it aiming to become the policy arm for an emerging Congressional group? And -- if so -- isn’t “bipartisanship” even more parochial a term than “centrism”?
(And you thought these sorts of spats were unique to the activist wing of the social change movement!)
What thinkers and activists must do
Even as radical-centrist members of Congress are coming together, pressure must be brought to bear on Congress by scholars and activists, who are in a position to question the WAYS our legislation is conceived, discussed, and passed into law.
The vice president of one international non-profit organization -- a distinguished scientist and member of the National Press Club -- preceded answering our poll with these words:
And the president of one ambitious transpartisan organization -- by no means a stranger to the ways of Washington -- declined to answer our poll, but sent us this response:
It may be of interest to the powers-that-be -- and it is certainly a promising sign of the times -- that both those respondents happen to be Republicans.
It is illuminating -- you might even say “bracing” -- to contrast the results of our scorecard with the results of conventional liberal and conservative scorecards. For an example of the former, see ACLU Congressional Scorecard. For an example of the latter, Club for Growth Congressional Scorecard.
An indispensible reference book for covering members of Congress is Michael Barone & Richard E. Cohen, Almanac of American Politics, 2008 (National Journal Group, 2007).
The ongoing brouhaha among Snowe, Lieberman, and Alexander is deftly peeked into in Emily Pierce, “Lieberman Quits Co-Chairing Snowe’s Centrist Group, Teams With Alexander,” Roll Call (December 20, 2006). Note that the article is housed at Alexander’s Senate Web site.
I am secretary-treasurer of the Center for Visionary Law, the nonprofit educational organization that publishes Radical Middle Online Newsletter. For many years I was executive secretary of the San Francisco Municipal Court, now folded into the San Francisco Superior Court system.
I have examined the "ballots" cast by all 21 judges in the voting described above. This is to certify that the results are exactly as described above.
Respectfully submitted, -- Terrye Wilder, San Francisco CA, 27 December 2007
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