Soon-to-be former Senator Evan Bayh has an op-ed piece in today’s New York Times explaining why he will not seek reelection. He says Congress is in need of reform, that members of the respective parties in Congress don’t socialize as a group, choosing instead to only meet on the floors of the House or Senate, where they are often combative and polarizing.
Unfortunately, Bayh’s solution is to get out. To quit. This decision lowers him to the level of Sarah Palin, with the exception that he will actually finish his current term in office. He will not quit early to work for Faux news.
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.
There are many causes for the dysfunction: strident partisanship, unyielding ideology, a corrosive system of campaign financing, gerrymandering of House districts, endless filibusters, holds on executive appointees in the Senate, dwindling social interaction between senators of opposing parties and a caucus system that promotes party unity at the expense of bipartisan consensus.
Many good people serve in Congress. They are patriotic, hard-working and devoted to the public good as they see it, but the institutional and cultural impediments to change frustrate the intentions of these well-meaning people as rarely before. It was not always thus.
While romanticizing the Senate of yore would be a mistake, it was certainly better in my father’s time. My father, Birch Bayh, represented Indiana in the Senate from 1963 to 1981. A progressive, he nonetheless enjoyed many friendships with moderate Republicans and Southern Democrats.
One incident from his career vividly demonstrates how times have changed. In 1968, 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.
When I was a boy, members of Congress from both parties, along with their families, would routinely visit our home for dinner or the holidays. This type of social interaction hardly ever happens today and we are the poorer for it. It is much harder to demonize someone when you know his family or have visited his home. Today, members routinely campaign against each other, raise donations against each other and force votes on trivial amendments written solely to provide fodder for the next negative attack ad. It’s difficult to work with members actively plotting your demise.
I agree that Congress needs to be reformed, and moderates like Bayh may very well be the people needed to help bring about that reform. Having a President who really is moderate, does not wed himself to any particular ideology, seeks the truth whereever it may lie, and believes in consensus building, has been a real plus — even though the far, far left doesn’t seem to get that yet. Bayh could have been part of the needed coalition to make Congress once again function as a parliament, a true legislative body that puts the good of the nation first.
That was then.
Now, the soon-to-be former Senator Bayh doesn’t have to worry about members of his or any other party actively plotting his demise. He took care of that himself.