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Pitts: No labels, no excuses

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT

Last week, at a meeting in New York, it was announced that a group of Republican and Democratic lawmakers have agreed to get together once in a while and chat. This made news nationwide.

Does that not tell you all you need to know about the sorry state of American politics? Does that not paint the starkest possible picture of the frozen government and balkanized parties that have left our nation lurching from crisis to crisis like a drunk on a heaving deck? Lord help us, it is newsworthy when Republicans and Democrats agree to talk.

This announcement of the political equivalent of a foreign exchange program was made under the aegis of a fledgling public interest group, No Labels, which has set as its task nothing less than the fixing of America’s broken government.

The group would want you to know that its name does not mean members are expected to surrender their ideology or party affiliation at the door. Indeed, No Labels members represent both parties and all points of the ideological spectrum. They would also want you to know their mission is not simply to restore civility to public discourse.

No, No Labels seeks to return to a day when labels did not prevent lawmakers from addressing the nation’s problems. “Stop fighting, start fixing!” goes the group’s slogan.

Founded two years ago and having gained little traction since, No Labels used last week’s event to hit the proverbial reset button. The group purposely does not get into the weeds of public policy or social issues, but it does have goals more ambitious than just encouraging regular get-togethers.

Its wish list includes a provision that Congress doesn’t get paid if it fails to pass a budget on time; another that bans lawmakers from taking any pledge but the Pledge of Allegiance and their oath of office; still another that requires a fast up or down vote on presidential appointments. No Labels would also like to see lawmakers receive an annual, nonpartisan briefing on the fiscal state of the union, the idea being that they would no longer be able to cherry pick “facts” from partisan groups to support their budget arguments.

Yes, this all smacks unbearably of kumbaya and earnestness to many of those professional cynics who watch politics for a living. Maybe they are right. There is something admittedly quixotic in the whole thing. But has anyone floated a better idea? The alternative is to remain what we are: A tire spinning in snow, making a lot of noise, digging in deeper and going nowhere.

We are in this fix because there is too much money in our politics, because the media echo chamber has grown too loud, because our election system has been rigged such that it discourages compromise. We are also here because the GOP has been taken over by inflexible extremists who call themselves (but often are not) conservatives.

Understand: Our politics are not simply polarized, they are poisonous. Left has seceded from right, fact has seceded from media, compromise has seceded from negotiation, pragmatism has seceded from legislation.

We play a zero-sum game where party trumps country, reason is treason and there is an evident belief that he who yells the stupidest thing in the loudest voice, wins.

This state of affairs exists because voters have allowed it to exist, because they reward it with big ratings on TV and big numbers at the polls. But there is a price tag for this. Our government is a train wreck.

No, that’s the wrong word. Train wrecks, after all, move. Our government is a glacier – frozen and inert beyond anything in recent memory. Any idea that holds out even a quixotic promise to get it moving again is worthy of support and applause.

You can offer either or both at nolabels.org.

• Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla., 33132. Readers may contact him via email at lpitts@miamiherald.com.

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