Sitting together at one end of the table, Rigell and Himes now crane their necks to hear Lipinski. “The system,” the Illinois Democrat says, “is set up against doing anything.” Around the black, polished-wood table, every head nods. Lipinski complains that committee staff members are too powerful. “I’ve reached agreement with Republicans [in Congress] and have had their staffers veto” the deal, he says.

Most lawmakers want to change Congress, at least in the abstract, Cicilline says. But real reform on issues such as redistricting, filibusters, and campaign spending are harder won. Like an unwelcome guest, reality silences the table—until Cicilline jump-starts the conversation with the smallest measure of optimism. “By the way,” he says, “just having a chat like this is monumental.”…

The answer, according to No Labels, is a grassroots movement of citizens who back reform-minded lawmakers, because party leaders, donors, and partisan commentators will defend the status quo. These nine lawmakers agree. “We need cover,” mutters one.