Worthwhile Midwestern Initiative: Evan Bayh's 'New York Times' Op-Ed on Procedural Reform

I was pretty hard on Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) the other day, so I think it's only fair that I recognize his sensible op-ed in the Sunday New York Times. Bayh argues that bipartisanship has declined (duh). But unlike those who just bemoan the trend, or fools like Lincoln Chafee who argue, against all evidence since the Civil War, that a third party will emerge, Bayh actually proposes some credible measures to get the Senate working again.

Some of his ideas are a little banal. I have no idea, for example, whether monthly bipartisan lunches will actually help solve the Senate's problems. But lunch is good. I'm a fan of lunch, and there's no downside to it, so why not try and find out?

Bayh's most substantive and helpful suggestion is filibuster reform. He acknowledges that he has participated in filibusters, and he argues that some degree of minority protection remains important. But he notes that the filibuster is being used for the opposite purpose of that which it was created: to prevent virtually all bills that would pass from moving, rather than to debate the occasional contentious issue. Consequently, legislating is grinding to a halt. So Bayh suggests limiting filibusters to one per bill, a logical reform that would have obviated the importance of Scott Brown's election. He also wants to reduce the number of senators required for cloture to 55, and to force any filibuster threat to actually be carried out. Those all are sound ideas. Maybe the minority should be able to stop drastic legislation from steamrolling through, but it should not be able to gum up the works every day just for the sake of making the majority appear ineffectual.

Bayh is also right to attribute heightened partisanship partially to the high cost of campaigning and the outside spending from corporations, pressure groups, and unions that will only be worsened by the recent Citizens United decision. If you depend on a mobilized base of activist party donors and the outside spending of singleminded companies or interest groups, you have less incentive to compromise. Bayh's suggestions for fixing this, short of a constitutional amendment, strike me as well meaning but unequal to the task. He says:

  • Congress should consider ways to lessen the impact of the Citizens United decision through legislation to enhance disclosure requirements, require corporate donors to appear in the political ads they finance, and prohibit government contractors or bailout beneficiaries from spending money on political campaigns.
  • Congress and state legislators should also consider incentives, including public matching funds for smaller contributions, to expand democratic participation and increase the influence of small donors relative to corporations and other special interests.

The most important piece here is public matching funds, which state governments are unlikely to adopt in this cash-strapped era. "Requiring corporate donors to appear in the political ads they finance" sounds like a good idea, but corporations could probably find wiggle room around it, and the current Supreme Court might overrule such a law.

The only major thing missing from Bayh's piece is any mention of the real reason partisanship has increased. Bayh reminisces about his father, a progressive senator, being friends with Republicans such as Minority Leader Everett Dirksen of Illinois, and Southern conservative Democrats. That would not be the case today because moderate Republicans and conservative Southern Democrats are dying breeds. The parties have realigned ideologically, and thus there are no Southern conservative Democrats who need to get along with Russ Feingold to do business, and no moderate Republicans who have much in common with Barbara Boxer. This realignment may be a good thing—it makes voting choices a lot easier—but it makes the Senate an inherently more partisan place.