In an essay titled, “Why I’m Leaving the Senate,” Evan Bayh brilliantly explains what’s wrong with the Senate and how to fix it. If only the headline had read, “Why I’m Not Leaving the Senate” — or better, “Things I Will Do If Indiana Voters Give Me Another 6 Years.”
Bayh is a heartland moderate with many attractive qualities and high poll numbers. After the Hoosier declared that he could not bear another term of senatorial dysfunction, pundits instantly speculated that Bayh might run for president. Hmmm.
One recalls New Jersey Democrat Bill Bradley’s announcement in 1995 that he would not seek re-election because the Senate is “broken” but that he’d consider the presidency. A politician who lacks the intestines to do battle in the Senate might not seem an ideal choice for the presidential hot seat. (Bradley’s 2000 campaign for the Democratic nomination fell flat.)
Only senators can make the Senate work as it should, and Bayh has excellent thoughts on that subject.
On bringing “honest dialogue” back to the Senate, he suggests, “Why not have a monthly lunch of all 100 senators?” They could pick a topic, and “each side could make a brief presentation followed by questions and answers.” Capital idea! Why doesn’t Bayh hang around and start those lunches?
On the “distorting influence of money,” Bayh suggests requiring corporate donors to put their names on the political ads they finance. He would also bar benefi- ciaries of government contracts or bailouts from spending money on political campaigns. Go for it, I say.
On filibusters, Bayh writes that legislative hijackings by the minority have proliferated “because under current rules just one or two determined senators can stop the Senate from functioning.” He has great proposals for curbing the filibuster while affording the minority some say.
For example, he would require that 35 senators commit “to continually debate an issue in reality, not just in theory.” As Jimmy Stewart does in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” they would have to inconvenience themselves and pull all-nighters. He would reduce the number of votes needed to overcome a filibuster to 55 from the current 60.
Bayh ends his piece with a pledge to spend his final 11 months in the Senate trying to make these reforms a reality. That’s nice, but a lame duck advocating for changes that might take years to achieve is unlikely to produce much success.
One often overlooked detail in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” is that the Stewart character was never elected. He was appointed by the governor to replace a senator who had suddenly died.
The political operators assumed that Jeff erson Smith would be easy to manipulate. He was “a simpleton of all times” who had never been in politics, they said. “He wouldn’t know what it was all about in two years, let alone two months.” But what Smith lacked in political sophistication, he made up for in courage.
A two-term senator and son of a three-term senator, Birch Bayh, Evan Bayh has the experience and smarts to direct a needed repair of the legislative body. He repeated the saying from his father’s day — that “a senator legislates for four years and campaigns for two” — and notes that senators now campaign all the time.
But suppose that Bayh, rather than quit the Senate, were to secure another six years in which he wouldn’t campaign at all. Suppose he were to use the opportunity to push, push, push for rules to restore the Senate’s ability to serve the people.
This is no time for reformers to jump ship. To borrow from another 1939 movie classic, American politics needs lions with courage more than scarecrows with brains.
©2010 The Providence Journal Co.