Monday, February 22, 2010

Does Senator Evan Bayh have the backbone to fight for reforms he says are needed?

Senator Evan Bayh had an op-ed in the New York Times this past week on why he decided not to run for a third term this year to the United States Senate. The decision took home state Democrats by surprise and may possibly jeopardize the Democrats’ majority in the Senate. He laments the rise of partisanship and cited a couple of structural problems in need of reform – campaign finance and the filibuster. Here are his thoughts on the filibuster:
…. the Senate should reform a practice increasingly abused by both parties, the filibuster. Historically, the filibuster was employed to ensure that momentous issues receive a full and fair hearing. Instead, it has come to serve the exact opposite purpose — to prevent the Senate from even conducting routine business.

Last fall, the Senate had to overcome two successive filibusters to pass a bill to provide millions of Americans with extended unemployment insurance. There was no opposition to the bill; it passed on a 98-0 vote. But some senators saw political advantage in drawing out debate, thus preventing the Senate from addressing other pressing matters.

Admittedly, I have participated in filibusters. If not abused, the filibuster can foster consensus-building. The minority has a right to voice legitimate concerns, but it must not employ this tactic to prevent progress on everything at a critical juncture for our country. We need to reduce the power of the minority to frustrate progress while still affording them some say.

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. During my father’s era, filibusters were commonly used to block civil rights legislation and, in 1975, the requisite number of votes was reduced to 60 from 67. The challenges facing the country today are so substantial that further delay imperils the Republic and warrants another reduction in the supermajority requirement.
Evan Bayh’s father, Birch Bayh, is well remembered for his work in the Senate representing Indiana during the 1960’s and 1970’s. He was the architect for Title IX (giving women equal opportunities in higher education) as well as the 25th (presidential succession) and 26th (lowering voting age to 18) amendments to the U.S. Constitution. He was a principle sponsor of the Equal Rights Amendment and legislation to abolish the Electoral College. He was a leader in the fight against two Nixon appointees with segregationist pasts to the United States Supreme Court.

Evan Bayh has no such track record. It’s hard to think of any major legislation that has passed under the guidance of his leadership that has changed the lives of the American people for the better. As Ezra Klein points out Bayh has not been associated with any of the structural reform efforts during his tenure in the Senate that he elegantly addresses in the Times’ piece. But what’s important is that he finally sees the 500 pound gorilla in the room and is willing to speak out even at this late date. My preference is to do away with the undemocratic filibuster altogether but his proposed limitations on filibustering would be a step in the right direction. If the Senator from Indiana has the courage of his convictions he will spend the remainder of his time in the United States Senate fighting for the reforms he says are so needed. If he could do that then his legacy would still not be equal to his father’s but at least he could leave Washington having accomplished something.

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