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Explore our coverage of government and politics.

Can This Caucus Bring Bipartisan Collaboration Back To Congress?

Photo: Tupungato, iStock; Graphic: Emily Alfin Johnson, VPR
A group of 35 lawmakers in Congress, including Rep. Peter Welch, is working to develop a collaborative approach to a number of key issues.

While many members of Congress are engaged in hyper-partisan activities in Washington these days, there is a group of roughly three dozen lawmakers, including Rep. Peter Welch, that is working to develop a collaborative approach to a number of key issues.

The partisan divide in Congress is so bad that many members are very reluctant to co-sponsor a bill that's been introduced by a member of the opposite party, because their own party leaders often discourage cooperation across the aisle. Welch says the entire structure of Congress is designed to separate Republicans and Democrats.

"Even in committee we sit apart, we caucus apart, there's very little interaction unless as an individual member you make an enormous effort to cross the aisle and spend time and get to know your colleagues,” said Welch.  

Congressman Charlie Dent is a Republican representing Pennsylvania's 15th District. It's in the eastern part of the state and borders on New Jersey. He's serving in his sixth term. Dent is also very concerned about the level of partisan politics in the U.S. House.

"I've always said we have a lot of members in Congress who are very good at telling you what they can never do. But in order to govern, and in order to run this country, we need people who have the capacity to get to 'yes,'" says Dent.

Welch, who is a Democrat, and Dent are part of a group of House members known as the Problem Solvers caucus. The group has 35 active members and they make a conscious effort to talk to each other about some of the pressing issues facing the country.

Credit Data: The office of Rep. Peter Welch; Graphic: Emily Alfin Johnson, VPR
Members of the Congressional Problem Solvers Caucus as of February 2017.

Welch says these conversations are incredibly valuable because they give members an opportunity to seek out common ground on key issues.

"There's no illusion that any specific caucus, whether it's Problem Solvers or any other individual caucus, can essentially overrule leadership and the partisanship that unfortunately really does prevail here,” said Welch. “But as individual members getting together, when we present a bipartisan bill, it's interesting how much force that gets in committee."

Rep. Dent is concerned about the future of Congress as a "functional" institution if the Problem Solvers caucus is not successful in encouraging more collaboration among members of the House.

"There's very little interaction unless as an individual member you make an enormous effort to cross the aisle and spend time and get to know your colleagues." — Rep. Peter Welch

"What's at stake is that we're just going to see greater polarization, more paralysis," says Dent. "And ultimately, I think a greater and deeper cynicism and anger than already exists in the country. That's my fear, and hopefully it doesn't lead to anything worse than that."

Rep. Welch thinks that he and Dent are interested in developing bipartisan solutions because both of them spent a fair amount of time in leadership positions in their state legislatures.

"Both of us have this experience where in the statehouse people do talk, and people have disagreements and people come to compromise and people make progress,” said Welch. “And that is the way it needs to be in any legislative body, but particularly in Congress."

Middlebury College political science professor Matt Dickinson says the partisan mindset in Congress has never been worse, and he thinks the work of this caucus is an important effort to help bridge the divide.

"What I think the Problem Solvers are useful at is if you can go behind closed doors and talk with people and find out what their concerns are, in theory you may be able to craft bipartisan deals that appeal to both sides," said Dickinson.

But Dickinson thinks some members of the Problem Solvers group are taking a big political risk in trying to work together.

He says they could be targeted by people in their own party who don't want to compromise.

"It's one thing to say, 'Yes we want to collaborate and get things done,' it's another to actually try to do that and risk getting 'primaried' by a more ideologically pure opponent within your own party," said Dickinson. 

While the Problem Solvers have yet to be successful in finding common ground on many major issues, Rep. Dent hopes they will have an impact on the upcoming debate over legislation aimed at rebuilding the nation's transportation infrastructure.

"There will be differences over the details, how we would implement such a program, but nevertheless there seems to be consensus on that issue," said Dent.

"What's at stake is that we're just going to see greater polarization, more paralysis and ultimately, I think a greater and deeper cynicism and anger than already exists in the country." — Rep. Charlie Dent (R-PA)

If the Problem Solvers are not successful in changing the nature of the partisan debate in Washington, Dickinson thinks there could be a huge voter backlash.

"Then Americans are going to say, 'A pox on both parties,' and we're going to start electing people who, like our current president, make a virtue out of not being a politician, of having no political experience. And that runs risks."

The effectiveness of the Problem Solvers caucus could be tested in the coming weeks because it's likely that the Trump Administration will soon unveil its plan to rebuild the country's highways and bridges.

Bob Kinzel has been covering the Vermont Statehouse since 1981 — longer than any continuously serving member of the Legislature. With his wealth of institutional knowledge, he answers your questions on our series, "Ask Bob."
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