Noah’s Ark

The Rise of the Congressional Reformers Caucus

As the national conversation breaks down, new groups are trying to find ways to bring the country, and its representatives, back together.

Thomas McKinless/AP

An entire wall of Meredith McGehee’s K Street office is covered with white boards that track current and past members of Congress who are aligned with the newly launched Congressional Reformers Caucus.

A longtime ethics-in-government activist, McGehee is the executive director of Issue One, an advocacy group founded in 2014 that works to restore confidence in government and reduce the role of money in politics.

A map shows former members of Congress in just about every state signing on to reduce pay-to-play politics and increase disclosure and accountability. It’s easy to commit once you’re out of office. But now, in what’s considered a big breakthrough, 26 current members—evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats—are forming a Congressional Reformers Caucus. Their first meeting will be Friday, June 8 in the House Longworth Building.

This newly created caucus emerges against a backdrop of a record number of retirements and widespread frustration with the job.

“There are a lot of unhappy members,” McGehee told The Daily Beast. “They talk about the money chase, the breakdown (of the legislative process) in Congress, the breakdown in civility. These are people who are chairmen of committees and they’re stepping away voluntarily, so the job sucks.”  

Members want to do public service, she says, and the level of disarray, and disappointment with the job is at a tipping point. She cites a Republican who left Congress last year saying he’d never served on a conference committee (to resolve policy differences between the House and Senate on a piece of legislation), he’d never even witnessed such a committee, and he’d never offered an amendment.

He thought serving in Congress would be the capstone of his career; instead all he was expected to do was raise money. McGehee concedes that trying to curb money in today’s environment is a non-starter, but when she talks to members about how much time they spend at the call center dialing for dollars, “their heads explode. They hate it.”  

The co-founders of the Congressional Reformers Caucus, Tea Party Republican Ken Buck from Colorado, and tough-on-crime Democrat Kathleen Rice from Long Island, New York, are both former prosecutors who share frustration over the breakdown in the legislative process. First elected in 2014, they are ideological opposites. Buck has an AR-15 mounted in a locked cabinet on his office wall while Rice supports gun control.

It’s not policy that’s brought them together. It’s process.

“The job doesn’t have to suck,” says McGehee.

Among the ideas the caucus is exploring are a ban on fundraising while the House is in session, an “Honest Ads” act that would have paid political ads on the Internet carry a disclaimer on who takes responsibility, similar to those on television ads, and more disclosure around leadership PACs that blur the line between official and personal use.    

Scanning the list of members who’ve signed onto the reformers caucus, there are a lot of up and comers. Thirty-four-year-old Republican Mike Gallagher from Green Bay, Wisconsin, is fluent in Arabic and served in Iraq. “He doesn’t want to be a potted plant, he wants to do something worthy,” says McGehee.

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New York Republican Elise Stefanik, 33, is on the list, as is Mike Coffman of Colorado, a veteran of the Gulf and Iraq wars, and co-sponsor of the Honest Ads Act with Washington State Democrat Derek Kilmer, who’s also on the list. Among the Democrats are known party reform activists Seth Moulton of Massachusetts and Cheri Bustos of Illinois.

No member can join the reformers caucus unless they bring along someone from the opposite party. “We call it Noah’s Ark,” says McGehee. But this is “not kumbaya.” She points to two prominent numbers on the wall: 218 and 60, the votes needed to pass legislation in the House and senate. “You have to fight for democracy,” she says. “We’re in the fight.”   

Meanwhile, for those who want kumbaya, a citizens-based effort called Better Angels is holding its founding convention this week on the campus of Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Virginia with the laudable goal of rebuilding civil discourse and de-polarizing America.  Among those attending is Peter Yarrow, who gained fame in the 1960s mixing music with political and social activism as part of the folk music group Peter, Paul, and Mary.

Better Angels held its first meeting three weeks after the 2016 election, and has since conducted over 100 workshops in some 35 states, instructing “red” and “blue” Americans how to hear each other and communicate respectfully. It’s not about finding a centrist policy or winning arguments, it’s about restoring trust in each other even—or especially—when we disagree.  

It’s the brainchild of David Blankenhorn, who heads the Institute for Values, and who gained notoriety as an outspoken critic of same-sex marriage before reversing himself in 2012. Claren O’Connor, director of communications for Better Angels told The Daily Beast that the experience of being hammered first by one side and then by the other in the marriage debate makes Blankenhorn uniquely qualified to lead others in this de-polarization work.  

The curriculum to rebuild communication between polar opposites is devised by William Doherty, a family therapist and head of the Doherty Relationship Institute at the University of Minnesota who specializes in working with people on the brink of divorce. At the end of the three-day retreat, more than 140 delegates representing 3,000 dues-paying members will take a pledge that recognizes the nation is in crisis, and that the crisis is polarization.

They will endorse a set of guiding principles for depolarization that apply to citizens, civic groups, scholars, the media and politicians to understand and respect the other side’s point of view, and to ensure that liberals and conservatives in equal numbers participate in this work. Better Angels plans to periodically rank all  535 members of Congress on a scale of zero to 100 on their fidelity to these principles of tolerance and inclusion and eventually to raise money to support Better Angels candidates through a sister organization.

Democracy is not a given, and those seeking to strengthen the national fabric have no time to waste.  

Editor’s Note: In a previous version, Former Rep Richard Hanna was wrongly identified as the congressman who had never been on a conference committee. We regret the error.