Last week, Senator Evan Bayh (D-IN) announced that he will not seek re-election this coming November. Bayh, a two-term senator, surprised Democratic officials in Washington and people across America with his decision. Before revealing his retirement, the Indiana senator was extremely popular, winning each of his elections by a large margin and earning consideration as a vice presidential candidate during Obama’s 2008 campaign. He has made his reason for leaving office clear: the complete lack of progress made in Congress over the last few years.
While Bayh’s decision to leave Congress does little to provide a solution as he simply runs away from the issue it sheds needed light on a problem that continues to harm the United States. Over the last two or so years, Congress has compiled a record that is most notable for its lack of achievements. Health care, cap-and-trade, and financial regulatory reform quickly come to mind as excellent ideas that have failed to pass through Washington.
This complete lack of progress is explained by the extreme partisanship among members of Congress and their unwillingness to compromise. Being in Congress should be about working together while partaking in useful and productive debate. For example, Congress should have teamed up to form bipartisan alliances to work towards reforming our flawed health care system. This should have occurred with the utmost urgency because of the severe problems the system presents. What happened instead? Members of Congress failed to work across the aisle, Democrats and Republicans drafted separate bills, and our elected officials used the process to play politics, point fingers and prepare for the November elections.
Long gone are the days of working together, as when President Reagan and House Speaker Tip O’Neil reached across the aisle to reform social security through a great compromise in 1983. Even the late, strongly liberal, Senator Ted Kennedy knew how to work with his political foes for the betterment of American citizens, as he routinely did throughout his career. Nonetheless, those who are willing to compromise and effectively legislate through intelligent debate are a dying breed. So what caused this problem in the first place?
Although it is difficult to point out a specific catalyst for this polarization of Congress, a few ideas come to mind. For one, Newt Gingrich’s push for a more unified, conservative Republican party in 1994 did not help. Ever since then, it seems that passing a bill in Congress is a game and the teams are Republicans versus Democrats. Making matters worse, the media continues to push the parties even further apart, pitting legislators and voters against each other and effectively choosing sides (think FOX News, MSNBC and nearly all of talk radio).
Institutionally, the Senate filibuster is a ridiculous impediment to progress that continually threatens the passage of needed legislation. It is debatable whether the filibuster should even exist, as it is not founded in any constitutional doctrine such as the proceedings from the constitutional convention. Rather, it was established afterward as a procedural technique and is now often used in an inappropriate manner to threaten the legislative process for what seem to be mostly political reasons. Regardless of why the problem occurs, there is no justification for the partisan deadlock.
Fortunately, America is catching on. In a recent New York Times/CBS News poll, 75 percent of respondents said they disapproved of the job Congress was doing. One can only hope that this public attitude leads to the ousting of some entrenched incumbents in the coming primaries and general elections.
In fact, some of these life-time politicians have already begun ‘retiring,” when in fact they are leaving office to avoid losing their seats at the hands of voters. Perhaps Congress will finally start working together.
As Harold Ford Jr., a potential New York Senate candidate, noted this past Thursday, ‘politics is about results.” It would be a welcome change to hear stories about members of Congress reverting to ‘old-school” politics, reaching across the aisle, making deals and doing just that: getting results. Until then, we will sit and wait, and likely hear more stories like Bayh’s, while nothing gets done at least until November.
Van Houten is a member of
the class of 2010.