Opinion

Opinion

Congress careening toward deadlock

February 20, 2010

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— The last time Sen. Evan Bayh was the subject of this column was back in October, when he organized a letter from 10 moderate Democrats informing Majority Leader Harry Reid that they would oppose any increase in the statutory debt ceiling unless it was accompanied by a serious move to rein in the national debt.

Specifically, the Indiana Democrat and his colleagues asked for a vote on the proposal to create a bipartisan commission to examine all aspects of spending and taxation and recommend deficit-cutting steps for a guaranteed vote by the House and Senate by the end of this year.

The Bayh threat worked. President Obama, who had been silent on the subject, belatedly gave the action-forcing commission his blessing and Reid called it up for a Senate vote. But despite winning a 53-46 majority, it fell short of the 60-vote margin needed to avoid a filibuster.

This was the final straw that pushed Bayh over the edge to announcing Monday his voluntary retirement from the Senate — a move that shocked fellow Hoosiers and Democrats. Only 54, with $13 million in his campaign account, comfortably ahead in a state where he has won every time he’s been on the ballot, Bayh told me that the “sorry episode” of the commission vote, as he called it, was what convinced him it was time to quit.

Both parties were to blame, he said. Twenty-three Republicans (and one independent) voted no, seven of them people who had previously co-sponsored the commission bill. So did 22 Democrats, many of them committee chairmen looking out for their own prerogatives.

I cannot fault Bayh for leaving, nor can I disagree with his statement that “short-term political advantage” trumped the national interest in this case and in many others in this sorry excuse for a Congress.

He is not alone in turning his back on the Senate. Eleven incumbents have announced their retirements — an unusually large crop. Three other retirees — Republicans Christopher “Kit” Bond of Missouri, Judd Gregg of New Hampshire and George Voinovich of Ohio — are, like Bayh, former governors of their states. A fifth retiree, Sam Brownback of Kansas, is leaving in order to run for governor.

The former governors have formed an informal caucus of their own within the Senate, inviting former mayors and state attorneys general to join them. What they have in common is the discipline of coming from jobs where they are judged by their results rather than their words. And most of them have learned to work comfortably and cooperatively with colleagues from other parties, as state or local officials regularly do when dealing with the federal bureaucracy.

Bayh told me that one of the senators he will miss most is Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the No. 3 man in the Senate GOP hierarchy, and another former governor. Alexander’s view of politics is strikingly similar — and far removed from those in both parties who, as Bayh put it, elevate ideology and partisanship over practical accomplishment.

Alexander was the only member of the Republican leadership to vote for the commission bill that Bayh wanted. In the last few weeks, Alexander has assembled a bipartisan group of 10 senators who are co-sponsoring a bill to update and improve clean air legislation. He is also teaming with Democratic Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia on a bill to facilitate construction of needed nuclear plants.

The Senate has become a source of frustration for those within its ranks as well as for those who simply watch it and wait impatiently for it to act. The coming exodus of former governors will hurt its already weak productivity. But two sitting governors, Florida’s Charlie Crist and North Dakota’s John Hoeven, and one former governor, Delaware’s Mike Castle, are in the running this year, and there are several attorneys general aiming for the Senate.

Obama continues to do his part, convening a bipartisan summit on health care next week and creating by executive order a bipartisan commission on deficit reduction, fulfilling Bayh’s hope as much as he can.

The opportunity for rescuing Congress from gridlock is still there, but the odds against it are growing.

— David Broder is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group. davidbroder@washpost.com

Comments

weeslicket 5 years, 6 months ago

good editorial. high on facts, low on table pounding.

jafs 5 years, 6 months ago

TS,

Do you really believe the incredibly partisan stuff you post?

"Everything wrong with this country is the Democrats' fault" seems to be your standard comment.

It takes two sides to come to a standstill.

The Republicans are clearly hoping to simply disavow any responsibility for Congressional decisions, and thus make political hay if those are unpopular or fail.

jafs 5 years, 6 months ago

TS,

Did you not read the part of my post that stated "It takes two sides,..."

I criticize both parties - they are clearly both flawed in my opinion. Liberals and conservatives alike are very good at pointing out the other side's flaws and very bad at seeing their own.

Liberals want to compare some idealized form of government with the realities of the private sector.

Conservatives want to compare some idealized form of the private sector with the realities of government.

My ideal government would include the best ideas of both sides and eliminate the worst of them:

As small a government as is feasible. Government involved in leveling playing fields and providing a fair chance for all (with the understanding of our history and how discrimination has/still exists in our society). Government involved in providing the conditions for the market to operate well (ie. anti-trust). Government out of the business of legislating morality. Programs structured so that they encourage personal responsibility and help foster good decision-making. Money removed as a major force in government. Bills much smaller, and only on one subject at a time (no irrelevant additions). Government run on a balanced budget - no deficits.

So I'm far from being a partisan Democrat - you should hear me debate my father-in-law (who is one).

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