Sunday, February 21, 2010

Evan Bayh on the Senate, campaign financing, and the filibuster

From an op-ed in yesterday's NYT:

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.

Of course, Bayh has long been a big part of the problem himself, and what he fails to understand, it seems, is that his brand of centrism is a major impediment to action. Along with helping Republicans block Democratic efforts, it prevents the majority from governing -- for example, on health-care reform, where a small group of Democratic centrists have held the process hostage, demanded concessions, and blocked their own party, a party with a solid majority in both houses of Congress, as well as with the White House, from passing reform supported by an overwhelming majority of that party's members on Capitol Hill.

And it's not like these centrists have been able to work collaboratively with like-minded Republicans, what few of them there are, because, when push comes to shove, as over health-care reform, Republicans circle the wagons and refuse to compromise, while they themselves, as when Bush was president, are often more than willing to break with their party to back the Republicans on any number of issues.

I'm not sure what would good would come of "a monthly lunch of all 100 senators," but I do applaud Bayh for coming out strongly against "[t]he recent Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, allowing corporations and unions to spend freely on ads explicitly supporting or opposing political candidates," as well as in support in filibuster reform:

Filibusters have proliferated because under current rules just one or two determined senators can stop the Senate from functioning. Today, the mere threat of a filibuster is enough to stop a vote; senators are rarely asked to pull all-nighters like Jimmy Stewart in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington."

For this reason, filibusters should require 35 senators to sign a public petition and make a commitment to continually debate an issue in reality, not just in theory. Those who obstruct the Senate should pay a price in public notoriety and physical exhaustion. That would lead to a significant decline in frivolous filibusters.

Filibusters should also be limited to no more than one for any piece of legislation. Currently, the decision to begin debate on a bill can be filibustered, followed by another filibuster on each amendment, followed by yet another filibuster before a final vote. This leads to multiple legislative delays and effectively grinds the Senate to a halt.

What's more, the number of votes needed to overcome a filibuster should be reduced to 55 from 60.

Sounds quite reasonable to me.

I hope Bayh will indeed "advocate for the reforms that will help Congress function as it once did" during his final year in office, but I also hope he will press his fellow Democratic centrists (Nelson, Landrieu, Lincoln, etc.) to let the Democratic majority -- their own party -- govern without having to strip its agenda down to appease their every last whim or to cave in to Republican demands at every turn.

Many of us liberals and progressives have come to dislike Bayh immensely over the years, to put it mildly, but he has a chance now to end his time in the Senate by working hard for what is right both for that august body and for his party. Let's hope he succeeds.

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