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Grass-roots group energizes Mainers about political reform

Chief among No Labels' recommendations is a bill to halt Congress' pay if a budget deadline is missed.

No Labels, the national organization determined to bring more constructive dialogue to government, recently came to town.

The group held a meeting at the University of New England's Portland campus that featured Angus King, the independent former governor now running for Senate, and Eliot Cutler, the independent who nearly won the 2008 gubernatorial race.

It was an evening to remember -- two of Maine's most thoughtful and articulate politicians discussing why our national government is not working and what we can do about it.

As King said, "Only serial killers are less popular than Congress," while Cutler declared that we are in the middle of a slow-motion catastrophe.

He noted that back in the '70s, when he and King were both staffers on Capitol Hill, the Clean Air Act, championed by Maine Sen. Ed Muskie and hugely controversial, nonetheless passed unanimously in the Senate. Those days of both parties working together to solve big problems now seem a quaint vestige of the distant past.

Both men lamented money's corrupting influence in politics today. Congress is now for sale. Those with big money and vested interests control more and more of the agenda. What can we ordinary citizens do?

No Labels was formed just over a year ago to give us ordinary folks an avenue to be heard. Founders Nancy Jacobsen and Bill Galston and many No Labels staffers came to Maine for this event.

Galston noted that No Labels has recently proposed 12 practical recommendations to get Congress working again. Chief among these is their No Budget No Pay proposal.

Galston pointed out it has been more than 20 years since Congress had passed its budget resolutions on time. The result has been a series of continuing resolutions in which nothing is decided, and the previous year's appropriations are simply carried over -- without change or improvements and at added cost to the taxpayer.

The No Labels solution is simple: If the budget is not passed by its due date of Sept. 30 each year, then congressional pay ceases as of Oct. 1 and would not resume until a budget was passed. Members would get no back salary retroactively.

In national polling, 88 percent of Americans backed this proposal. Before coming to Maine, No Labels did a special poll here on the No Budget No Pay proposal, and it was supported by 92 percent of Mainers -- a record for an individual state.

Co-sponsors of No Budget No Pay legislation include Mainers Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe and Rep. Mike Michaud, the 2nd District Democrat.

Susan Collins is the ranking Republican on the Senate committee that is considering this legislation. Her support would be particularly important. To date, she has not said whether she will support this legislation.

This No Budget No Pay proposal, as straightforward and reasonable as it is, is unlikely to pass. Members are not willing to be held accountable.

Nonetheless, No Labels is using this legislation and the other common-sense recommendations in its 12-point plan to highlight how badly Congress is broken and to build grass-roots support for reform.

Certainly, there was enormous energy in that packed lecture hall April 27. We were a diverse group of Mainers frustrated by our elected leaders' inability to tackle significant problems: the budget deficit, Medicare spending, economic growth and immigration, to name a few.

King put it well when he said that he would not have run for Snowe's Senate seat but for the fact that he was struck by her news conference comments about the inability of either party to govern. Clearly, the polarization of both parties in Washington has ground the congressional process to a halt.

King said it is time to try something different. He said, "I am just one independent, but I will bring a different approach -- with an ally or two or three, who knows what may happen."

I attended that No Labels meeting deeply discouraged about the state of the country. I left with a quicker step.

With people of the ability of King and Cutler willing to stand in the breach, and with organizations like No Labels giving a platform to those who are unwilling to accept the current state of American politics, there is hope.

It is still a slim reed, but it is a place to start. No Labels has a wonderful quote on its website from the late, pioneering tennis star Arthur Ashe: "Start where you are, use what you have, do what you can."

Here's one thing you can do -- ask Sen. Collins to support No Budget No Pay legislation.