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.
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