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The arena needs to be fixed



Published: Thu, February 18, 2010 @ 12:00 a.m.

By Ruth Marcus

WASHINGTON — The most striking part of Sen. Evan Bayh’s retirement announcement was his on-air job application. He’d be interested in managing a business, Bayh suggested, heading a university, or maybe running a charity.

“I love helping our citizens make the most of their lives,” Bayh said, “but I do not love Congress,” bluntly assessing an institution he has known since he was 7 and his father became senator.

Teddy Roosevelt famously lauded “the man who is actually in the arena,” who “if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.” What happens, though, when the arena is dysfunctional? The Senate, with its endless holds and 60-vote points of order, may be the epitome of a place that knows neither victory nor defeat.

“It’s a bad sign,” Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine told me about Bayh’s retirement. “The loss of someone like Evan speaks volumes about people’s frustrations with the Senate and our failure to work in a bipartisan fashion.”

Maybe the arena has shifted. Maybe, for the man — or woman — who wants to make a difference, politics is not the optimal venue. Maybe it’s easier to make your mark from the Gates Foundation than from a Senate seat. Maybe the CEO of Google — your average Google vice president, even — wields more influence over people’s lives than an individual member of Congress. Maybe it’s a better use of time to promote scientific research than to slog from one quorum call to the next.

“The way Congress is working right now, I decided I could make a better contribution to my state and country on a smaller stage,” Bayh told me Tuesday. “There are some ideologues in the Senate. There are some staunch partisans. The vast majority are good, decent people who are trapped in a system that does not let that goodness and decency translate itself into legislative accomplishments.”

When his father Birch Bayh was running for re-election in 1968, Bayh noted, Republican leader Everett Dirksen approached the Democrat on the Senate floor and asked how he could help. “It’s unthinkable today,” Bayh said. “One after another, the barriers to incivility get broken down. Senators actively fundraise against their colleagues, they campaign against their colleagues and that is not conducive to consensus building if you know the people you have to work with want to do you in.”

Transformation

Indeed, the Senate has been transformed even since Evan Bayh arrived in 1999. During the 106th Congress, from 1999 to 2001, there were fewer cloture petitions filed to end debate on filibusters than there have been halfway through the 111th Congress. Then, there were perhaps a dozen moderate Republicans. Now, except for Maine’s Collins and Olympia Snowe, they are all gone.

Bayh, who speaks with the experience of a man with $13 million in his campaign account, attributed some of the changed atmosphere to the incessant demands of fundraising. “Back in my father’s day, the saying was that you legislated for four years and you ran for re-election for two,” he said.

The optimist in me would like to see Bayh’s departure as the wake-up call the Senate needs. The optimist takes heart in the prospect next year of a larger cadre of centrist Republicans with political incentives to compromise rather than obstruct. The optimist looks at Virginia Democrat Mark Warner and Tennessee Republican Bob Corker trying again on financial regulation, Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden and New Hampshire Republican Judd Gregg gearing up on tax reform — and thinks: Someone’s got to keep at this.

“The forecast for this country is bleak if people are just going to say that the dysfunction has been institutionalized,” Warner told me. “I just can’t accept that.”

The realist in me watches the fervent Tea Partiers, tugging the Republican Party even further to the right, and the Republican congressional leadership, reaping the short-term rewards of obstruction — and worries.

“What I think Evan has been trying to communicate is that politics cannot be seen as a zero-sum game where one side wipes the floor with the other side,” Wyden told me. Until this happens, he said, “I think you’re going to see more good and thoughtful people say that they’re going to find other things to do.”


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