I was duped.
When I was elected to Congress in 2012, I attended the Bipartisan Program for Newly Elected Members of Congress at Harvard University. I was so excited to be a member of a branch of government for the most awesome country on the planet.
At the program, one of the presentations was from a group named No Labels. The organization put forward a proposal for governing that meant working across the aisle to solve problems and stopping the gridlock in Washington. I was excited!
While I was a strong progressive in the Wisconsin Legislature, that was my governing approach. By working with people who do not always agree with you, you find out what you have in common and you can get good things done.
My friend and colleague Reid Ribble ― who was then a U.S. representative from Green Bay, Wisconsin ― was active with the group. While he was a conservative, he wanted to find out what we had in common to get the business of the federal government done. Reid is a good man, and he was very sincere about this ― as was I. The idea of ending gridlock was a strong one and dozens of us in Congress joined the organization.
The moment we were sworn in, we were given lapel pins to brand us as the Problem Solvers Caucus, which was sponsored by No Labels.
However, things quickly went south. I attended a few meetings at the outset, but the rhetoric wasn’t about finding ways to get things done and breaking gridlock ― rather it was more about finding more centrist, more corporate and more special interest-focused things to do.
Soon thereafter, No Labels became involved in elections with a closely contested U.S. Senate race in Colorado, backing Republican Cory Gardner over Democrat Mark Udall.
That didn’t seem right. A group that wasn’t supposed to pick labels was doing exactly that: picking a label. When asked to join the Problem Solvers Caucus, members were never told that this would be part of the program.
Next, I received a request from a constituent regarding where No Labels received its funding. I wanted to know the answer as well. I called their “Democratic” contact for the organization and asked about the funding sources.
No Labels’ reply? “We can quietly take you off our list.” I was shocked. I replied that I don’t do most anything quietly, and after pushing for more details, I still didn’t make much progress in getting answers.
Right away, that made me extremely skeptical about the “bipartisan” nature of No Labels.
I drifted away from the organization, as apparently did most people who thought it was focused on trying to break through the gridlock in Washington. No Labels’ membership has dwindled steadily since 2015.
Fast-forward to the past few weeks, when No Labels’ Problem Solvers Caucus tried to threaten Nancy Pelosi’s speakership. While No Labels was originally advertised as a group committed to getting things done and breaking gridlock, it now seems more focused on stopping Pelosi and providing a fast track for special interests and lobbyists.
Worse, this past week I’ve read a few articles regarding what No Labels has been up to in the last couple of years.
First, the organization spent almost twice as much helping re-elect Republicans as it spent helping Democrats. Second, reporters reviewed email correspondence that showed No Labels contemplating a plan to attack Pelosi and use her leadership as a wedge to divide congressional Democrats. And third, it’s clear that No Labels never had any meaningful ultimatums or demands on rules for leadership during eight years of a Republican-led House, or over the last four years of a Republican-led Senate. No Labels only has challenges for Democratic leadership in the House, specifically, for our next speaker, Nancy Pelosi.
That sure seems like a label to me.
Look, I get it. No Labels is slick, and I got duped. But no other current or newly elected member of Congress should fall for its shtick. No Labels is a centrist, corporate organization working against Democrats with dark, anonymous money to advance power for special interests. Period.
So newly elected members, learn from my mistakes. Run. Fast. No Labels needs a label: “Warning: Wolf in sheep’s clothing inside. Join at your own risk.”
Congressman Mark Pocan represents Wisconsin’s 2nd District and is the co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.