Published: February 20, 2010
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.
Many good people serve in Congress. They are patriotic, hard-working and devoted to the public good as they see it, but the institutional and cultural impediments to change frustrate the intentions of these well-meaning people as rarely before. It was not always thus.
While romanticizing the Senate of yore would be a mistake, it was certainly better in my father’s time. My father, Birch Bayh, represented Indiana in the Senate from 1963 to 1981. A progressive, he nonetheless enjoyed many friendships with moderate Republicans and Southern Democrats.
One incident from his career vividly demonstrates how times have changed. In 1968, when my father was running for re-election, Everett Dirksen, the Republican leader, approached him on the Senate floor, put his arm around my dad’s shoulder, and asked what he could do to help. This is unimaginable today.
When I was a boy, members of Congress from both parties, along with their families, would routinely visit our home for dinner or the holidays. This type of social interaction hardly ever happens today and we are the poorer for it. It is much harder to demonize someone when you know his family or have visited his home. Today, members routinely campaign against each other, raise donations against each other and force votes on trivial amendments written solely to provide fodder for the next negative attack ad. It’s difficult to work with members actively plotting your demise.
Any improvement must begin by changing the personal chemistry among senators. More interaction in a non-adversarial atmosphere would help.
I’m beginning my 12th year in the Senate and only twice have all the senators gathered for something other than purely ceremonial occasions. The first was during my initial week in office. President Bill Clinton had been impeached and the Senate had to conduct his trial. This hadn’t happened since 1868, and there were no rules in place for conducting the proceedings.
All of us gathered in the Old Senate Chamber. For several hours we debated how to proceed. Finally, Ted Kennedy and Phil Gramm, ideological opposites, were given the task of forging a compromise. They did, and it was unanimously ratified.
The second occasion was just days after Sept. 11. Every senator who could make it to Washington gathered in the Senate dining room to discuss the American response. The nation had been attacked. The building in which we sat had been among the targets, and only the heroism of the passengers prevented the plane from reaching its destination. We had to respond to protect the country. There were no Republicans or Democrats in the room that day, just Americans. The spirit of patriotism and togetherness was palpable. That atmosphere prevailed for only two or three weeks before politics once again intervened.
It shouldn’t take a constitutional crisis or an attack on the nation to create honest dialogue in the Senate. Let’s start with a simple proposal: why not have a monthly lunch of all 100 senators? Every week, the parties already meet for a caucus lunch. Democrats gather in one room, Republicans in another, and no bipartisan interaction takes place. With a monthly lunch of all senators, we could pick a topic and have each side make a brief presentation followed by questions and answers. Listening to one another, absent the posturing and public talking points, could only promote greater understanding, which is necessary to real progress.