Reid Ribble says that when Mark Pocan was elected to the House of Representatives in 2012, Ribble was told by some Republican legislators in Madison he should reach out to Pocan.Ribble said then-Rep. Tammy Baldwin did the same for him when he was elected in 2011.
So Ribble contacted Pocan, and the two developed a friendship that has seen them work together in friendly, civil ways, including in the work of the House budget committee, on which they each serve.
What’s so unusual about that? Only this: Ribble is a Republican who represents the Appleton-Green Bay area in Washington. He is a self-described conservative with a libertarian bent. Pocan is a self-described progressive liberal Democrat who represents the Madison area. (For that matter, Baldwin, who helped Ribble on his arrival and who is now a senator, is one of the most liberal members of Congress.)
You just don’t do that cross-the-aisle stuff in the divisive, highly partisan atmosphere that surrounds Congress.
Or do you? Ribble and Pocan are now leading figures in a growing effort called the No-Labels Problem Solvers, which brings together members in the House and Senate from both parties in informal social settings, just to get to know each other. Ribble was one of the four initial members of the group, which has grown to more than 90, including two other Republican representatives from Wisconsin, Sean Duffy and Tom Petri.
At an “On the Issues with Mike Gousha” session Monday at Eckstein Hall, Pocan and Ribble described the effort and their hopes that it will change the way Congress handles many issues and raise the low-opinion so many Americans have of Congress.
‘We could change very quickly the way the American people view the Congress,” Ribble said, by having members show more respect for each other and the institution. “We need to elevate the dialogue.”
But it is more than just the dialogue. Pocan said he and Ribble have major differences on many issues, but they have also found things they can work on together. One example: a bi-partisan proposal each of them supports to switch to a two-year federal budgeting cycle, rather than the current one-year cycle. The one-year system doesn’t function well, the two said, while a two-year system could be more practical and offer more opportunities to focus on the kind of serious policy issues that Congress rarely addresses.
Pocan said that in the early years after he was elected to the Wisconsin Assembly in 1998, he was a “bomb-thrower” who engaged in heated political tactics without regard for their impact. He learned, he said, that “you’ve got to get something done,” and that means working with people, including those in the other party. Pocan and Rep. Robin Vos, a conservative who is now speaker of the Assembly, developed a warm friendship that served both of them, even as they did not compromise their positions, Pocan recalled.
Ribble said, “One reason you don’t have agreement in Congress is that hardly anybody looks for it.” The Problem Solvers caucus is intended to counter that. He said when he is accused to being soft on dealing with Democrats, he responds that he has enough confidence in his views that he is willing to discuss them in a friendly manner with those who have other views. “You can be principled and reasonable, all at once,” he said.
Both pointed to the way congressional district lines had been drawn in many states as part of the problem of partisan separation in Congress because so many districts have lopsided majorities for incumbents and few districts are “purple.” That leads to stronger partisan positioning. In too many places in the country, Ribble said, voters think they are electing their representatives, but what is really happening is that, through redistricting, representatives are electing who is going to vote for them in ways that serve the representative’s interests. Ribble said he likes representing what he called a purple district.
Pocan and Ribble said their effort has gotten much further than many expected. It’s been a constructive surprise for some to find they can have friendships with people in the opposite party and that they have some things in common. “It’s impossible to dislike Reid Ribble,” Pocan said at one point, a show of friendliness that was clearly reciprocal.
The session with Ribble and Pocan can be viewed by clicking here.