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Stay in the Senate, Mr. Bayh


Evan Bayh might have been an ordinary politician, but he's proving an extraordinary retiree. His essay on the dysfunctions of the modern Senate is an urgent and important political document, as much for who wrote it as for the precision of its analysis. And its author should remain in the Senate.

"In 1968," recalls Bayh, "when my father was running for re-election, Everett Dirksen, the Republican leader, approached him on the Senate floor, put his arm around my dad’s shoulder, and asked what he could do to help. This is unimaginable today." But the importance of Bayh's essay is that it doesn't take the easy way out and just demand that America imagine itself a better Senate. This is the new reality, and though Bayh offers some ideas to start changing the hyper-partisanship, he also offers ideas meant to make the place functional in the meantime -- namely, filibuster and campaign finance reform. And then there's this paragraph:

Our most strident partisans must learn to occasionally sacrifice short-term tactical political advantage for the sake of the nation. Otherwise, Congress will remain stuck in an endless cycle of recrimination and revenge. The minority seeks to frustrate the majority, and when the majority is displaced it returns the favor. Power is constantly sought through the use of means which render its effective use, once acquired, impossible.

"Power is constantly sought through the use of means which render its effective use, once acquired, impossible." That's about the best single sentence I've seen written on America's legislative paralysis.

This sudden embrace of the structural critique of American politics is a surprise from Bayh. He's never been media-shy, yet I don't know of any interviews, speeches, or legislative initiatives that even hinted at these views. Bayh writes eloquently about campaign finance reform in Sunday's essay, but he was not a co-sponsor of Dick Durbin's Fair Elections Now Act; he speaks forcefully against the filibuster, but he did not sign onto Tom Harkin's resolution to reform it. This analysis, and these proposals, were not even present in Bayh's resignation speech.

But however Bayh came to these views, what matters is that he holds them now. There is no better vehicle for this message than Bayh. He is arguably the least partisan Democrat in the body, and among his solutions are lunches and meetings that would put members of both parties in the same room with some regularity. This is not a partisan issue. It's an issue that's about partisanship, and he's one of the few with the credibility to make that distinction. Moreover, his lineage gives him a historical connection to a more harmonious, effective Senate, which affords him uncommon authority to argue that something fundamental has changed in the body.

But most importantly, Bayh understands the stakes. "The institutional inertia gripping Congress is no laughing matter," he warns. "Challenges of historic import threaten America’s future. Action on the deficit, economy, energy, health care and much more is imperative, yet our legislative institutions fail to act. Congress must be reformed."

"In my final 11 months," he promises, "I will advocate for the reforms that will help Congress function as it once did." But that's 11 months during an election year. There is little hope of action during that hyper-polarized period. And after Bayh leaves the Senate, there will be no one with his bipartisan credibility and dead-on articulation of the problem left to carry this issue forward.

But Bayh has not yet left the Senate, he has more than $13 million in his reelection account, and he has an urgent message for his campaign. When Bayh originally announced his retirement, I saw the Democrats potentially losing the seat, but little cost to the institution's intellectual life. "The guy missed out on a terrific career as a fortune cookie author," I said. But the intervening week proved that post wrong. I would not have imagined myself writing this sentence, but here it is: Reconsider your decision to retire, Senator. Your country still needs you.

Photo credit: Melina Mara//the Washington Post Photo.

By Ezra Klein  |  February 22, 2010; 9:00 AM ET
Categories:  Senate  
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Next: The president's health-care plan


Does this also make you reconsider your take on Obama's efforts to reach across the aisle for bipartisan support for health reform? Whereas Bayh has (belatedly) talked the talk, doesn't is seem that Obama has walked the walk?

Posted by: billkarwin | February 22, 2010 1:25 AM | Report abuse

Again, the House has been relentlessly partisan for decades, no matter who is in control. Honestly, the House is a greater problem than the Senate. I think Nancy Pelosi and Eric Cantor are extremely honorable Americans in every way but they are not mainstream. The Senate, when it works, is the best hope for America. And for the Senate to work there must be some semblance of bipartisanship, not ramming through votes on straight party votes, again no matter who is in control. Neither party (I'm a moderate Dem) has a monopoly on wisdom. When drafting bills, start by writing out the areas of agreement, then haggle out the rest on a 60/40 or 55/45 basis. We are not Britain where parties roll each other. Work together please.

Posted by: craig18 | February 22, 2010 3:33 AM | Report abuse

The obvious inference is that Bayh regards raising these issues as electoral suicide, so he just got his suicide in first, at his timing, not his enemies'. he's sacrificing himself for the sake of the nation!

Posted by: vagueofgodalming | February 22, 2010 6:58 AM | Report abuse

I read Evan Bayh in the Times yesterday, and I dont know that he needs to stay in the Senate so much as become a blogger, or write opeds for the Times or elsewhere. As Ezra says, he has stated all these things on his way out the door, but in his 1,000 appearances on Fox News Sunday or Meet the Press, Hardball, or anywhere else in the media or as a member of the United States Senate did he ever advocate for any of this? Hardly.

There are other Senators who have proposals to change some of these very problems in the Senate he discusses, who could have used the imprimatur of a co-sponsor like Evan Bayh, midwestern moderate guy who is telegenic and beloved by the right wing media. Did he step up and do any of that? No.

So what we have here is a future blogger, not a necessary Senator.

Posted by: zeppelin003 | February 22, 2010 7:46 AM | Report abuse

the problem though Ezra is that IF he didn't retire he couldn't and wouldn't say these things. Its his retirement that makes it happen and possible. Another screaming endorsement for term limits that will allow politicians to finally be honest (in their last term) because of little or no political fallout.

Posted by: visionbrkr | February 22, 2010 7:48 AM | Report abuse

oy - you're getting beltway delirium again. Bayh is a two-bit crook running interference for his health industry lobbyist wife. Anyone who implies that he's anything other than a common criminal is way past the legal limit for koolaid consumption.

Call a fraud a fraud - is that too much to ask of a journalist?

Posted by: akmakm | February 22, 2010 7:55 AM | Report abuse

The problem with the Senate (and Congress overall) is that Marxists are in charge, where they have been bribing and browbeating moderate Democrats to advance an ideological agenda.

This agenda is so radical -- so alarming -- to center-right America that it recently took the extreme measure of installing a Republican in Ted Kennedy's seat to stop it.

I'd like to say that Blue Dogs who've resisted liberal leadership are more likely to keep their seats this November, but I'm not so sure. If the 111th Congress has told us anything about the value of moderate Democrats, it's that they round out Democrats' majority technically enabling a far left agenda.

Although they themselves pose a far lesser threat to our freedom, removing moderate Democrats may be the best way to stop the likes of Barack Obama, Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi from completely crippling our economy and turning "the American dream" into "American history."

Posted by: cpurick | February 22, 2010 8:09 AM | Report abuse

Didn't you say this yourself not too long ago, Ezra? - Senators always TALK about how they would like to change things, would vote in favor of some measures, would be more non-partisan and work together....after they have left office or announced their intentions of leaving office. They never do these things when they are in actual positions to really make the difference, only when they are heading or already out the door.

Posted by: markgoede | February 22, 2010 8:13 AM | Report abuse

Weak sauce. Bayh's been there for what? 12 years? And he's said or done nary a peep about this.

Now, he "retires", and he's a "crusader" for reform?

Ezra, can't you smell the bs in the morning? This is about "next steps" and "positioning". If you can't really tell the difference between that and real commitment, I'm going to start wondering about your judgement when you report about fast-talking politicians.

Posted by: JERiv | February 22, 2010 8:35 AM | Report abuse

Everett Dirksen's time in Washington predates Roe v. Wade, and politics has not been the same since.

Posted by: Evilbear | February 22, 2010 8:51 AM | Report abuse

How juvenile is it to say it doesn't matter how he came by these views, or that they are different this week than last, or from his previous actions. Grow up and speculate a little bit about the motivation here.

Posted by: truck1 | February 22, 2010 8:59 AM | Report abuse

Bayh needs to go. He was a dividing force during the health care debate this past year. He is part of the problem he speaks insincerely of.

Posted by: Lomillialor | February 22, 2010 9:05 AM | Report abuse

Everything you need to know about Bayh that you WON'T hear inside this left-wing echo chamber:

Even Bayh, perhaps inadvertently, let on that he believes the "stimulus" failed to stimulate. "If I could create one job in the private sector by helping to grow a business," he said, "that would be one more than Congress has created in the last six months."

Posted by: FastEddieO007 | February 22, 2010 9:27 AM | Report abuse

Leave it to Ezra to take the politics out of a post about politics. For all of Ezra's earnest hand-wringing about the mysterious new instititional pitfalls of our government, it really does come down to people - 40 years ago, the Senate GOP leader was Ev Dirksen, and the leader now is Mitch McConnell. One was at least open to the blandishments of a Democratic president pressing groundbreaking reform, and the other routinely opposes the weak tea offered by the current WH. The conservative movement for the last 40 years has killed off people like Ev Dirksen and intimidated the Dems so much that we've replaced a real liberal like Birch Bayh with a do-nothing like Evan who talks reform on his way out the door. There's no magic institutional fix to that. It starts with the willingness to push back and to change the terms of the debate that we've conceded to conservatives for 30+ years. It doesn't start with pretending that the GOP of today is like the GOP of yesterday and that gridlock must be the result of some hidden institutional defect that we were unaware of for 220 years.

Posted by: redscott | February 22, 2010 9:51 AM | Report abuse

Nice comment Ezra, but Senator Bayh is replaceable. Simple as that. Maybe the future senator from Indiana will be better, maybe worse (irrespective of party). But eventually there will be a quality replacement. Same holds for every senator (or congress person). No elected official is so valuable that they should be encouraged to remain in office indefinitely. New blood, fresh thinking is what is required to revive & improve the congress & senate. Sufficient new blood & new ideas are what is needed. Think back to 1994 (I am in no way saying that "the republican revolution/contract with America" was a good thing just that it was "different"), what a change that was. Bayh has done that time. Sometimes, legislators are at their best when there is an "ex" in front of the title. This ay be the case with Senator Bayh.

Posted by: notamullethead | February 22, 2010 10:01 AM | Report abuse

I remind you of the horrible things that were said about George W. Bush. I believe the Senate Majority Leader referred to Bush as a "loser."

Nothing so unrespectful has been said about President Obama, although I will admit the situation our last three presidents have had to oversee have been horrible.

Posted by: lancediverson | February 22, 2010 10:04 AM | Report abuse

I think the point of this is not that "Old Mediocre Bayh" should stay in the Senate, but that this "New Reformer Bayh" should stick around to actually attempt to carry out his agenda. After all, the Senate's going to have to be reformed from within, and his vote actually matters in that regard.

Posted by: etdean1 | February 22, 2010 10:31 AM | Report abuse

Bayh's commentary is weak tea. But then, Harvard Prof. Lawrence Lessig's The Nation piece on "How to Get Our Democracy Back" doesn't brew a solution much stronger - but Lessig's description of the probem is right on.

We don't need Bayh in the Senate. He has done nothing for 12 years except obstruct through trivial 'bipartisanship' on key issues while support for his wife's healthcare connections had his constant attention.

Lessig describes the disease: Congress isn't a reflection of citizen's needs and desires. Bayh mumbles platitudes that he never attempted to put into action.

Bayh, LIEberman, B. Nelson, Blanche Lincoln. The nation would be better off with tea partiers in their seats since their 'solutions' are prima facie ridiculous.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | February 22, 2010 11:06 AM | Report abuse

Hmm, I am not so credulous of a couple of weeks of clear communications after an entire career of bland mediocrity.

I think what you see here is the amount of influence parties exert over their members. Obviously this stuff didn't spring fully-formed into Evan's mind over the space of a couple weeks. He just felt unable to discuss it before. Since most Americans never tire of bashing Congress, it seems unlikely it was out of fear of his constituents' displeasure that he remained silent.

I'm glad someone is saying it. I do think his history of limp, mindless calls for bipartisanship DO give him a special kind of credibility on this issue. And I do wish he would stay because this is a bad year for him to retire. All in all, though, the worm turns. I'm not sure the benefits of keeping the seat for another 6 years outweigh the annoyance of keeping Evan for another 6 years.

Posted by: roquelaure_79 | February 22, 2010 12:07 PM | Report abuse

Bayh should introduce legislation to reform the filibuster etc along the lines he proposes.

Then, if the legislation passes, he should stay in office.

Posted by: paul65 | February 22, 2010 5:51 PM | Report abuse

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