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March 1, 2010

THE FACE OF DYSFUNCTION

“I love helping our citizens make the most of their lives, but I do not love Congress.”
—U.S. Senator Evan Bayh (D-Indiana)

Let’s pause to consider for a moment what it means when an experienced, effective, conscientious, center-leaning public servant such as Senator Bayh chooses to leave Congress rather than continue to fight the good fight in the “world’s greatest deliberative body.” As just about everyone knows, Bayh announced in February that he will not stand for reelection this year, even though the polls showed he would likely be an easy victor, and he agreed.

So why leave this position of prestige and power? The answer, perhaps, can be found in the extreme and unrelenting polarization of Congress—indeed, of all politics nationally, it seems—along extreme, rigid party lines.

As many commentators, from both the left and right, have noted, in the history of our nation, almost all of the major social and economic legislation passed by Congress and signed into law has had a recognizable measure of broad support. Especially when it comes to social legislation, the absolute necessities to secure passage have been these:

  • General agreement that a significant social wrong requires resolution
  • A willingness on the part of Congressional leaders, of both parties, to tackle the problem and work, together as necessary, to achieve a mutually satisfactory solution
  • Final legislation, approved by significant majorities, including major votes for the bill by minority party members

Take the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the hotly contested federal response to discriminatory practices among the states that denied African-Americans their opportunity to vote. Proposed by a Democratic president, Lyndon B. Johnson, that landmark measure was approved 79-18 in the Senate, with 49 majority Democrats and 30 minority Republicans voting for it. In the House, the measure was approved 328-74, including 217 majority Democrats and 111 minority Republicans voting aye.

Imagine the leadership and spirit of cooperation in pursuit of the nation’s vital business required to achieve that kind of bipartisan result. In fact, a greater percentage of Republicans voted for the Voting Rights Act than Democrats.

In contrast, Senator Bayh says, today’s Congress is “not acting as it should. There is too much partisanship and not enough progress—too much narrow ideology and not enough practical problem-solving. Even at a time of enormous challenge, the peoples’ business is not being done…”

So instead of principled debate and responsible leadership, we now have the specter of one complex, extraordinarily costly piece of legislation after another being rammed through the House or Senate on the basis of raw political power assisted by, essentially, legislative bribes to buy the votes of dissenters. Lots of talk, but very little listening. A desperate effort to make the other guy look bad, rather than to make the nation a little better, in such important issues as health care, greenhouse gas emissions, taxes, energy, labor, the out-of-control federal deficit, and much more.

No wonder Bayh has had enough. Our politics have been little, mean-spirited and punitive, and our leaders, by adopting an “anything goes” approach to important issues, have sown the very distrust that makes it so difficult to achieve compromise and consensus.

The good news? The good news is that 2010 is an election year, and come November, it’s our turn at bat. Let’s make our votes count.