Evan Bayh

There has been much discussion among political pundits this week regarding whether Democratic Sen. Evan Bayh’s decision not to run for re-election is a symptom of a broken U.S. Senate.

Perhaps it is. After all, compared to the U.S. House of Representatives, the U.S. Senate has been an epic failure. But it is also possible that Bayh – who is only a two-term senator, not a lifetime member of Congress – just wants to do other things, like run for president or make a lot more money somewhere in the private sector. Regardless of Bayh’s motive, the discussion about the U.S. Senate’s ineffectiveness is a needed one. The increasing ineffectiveness of a bipartisan approach to politics also needs to be part of the same discussion. After all, it seems as if the politicians who don’t fit squarely in the peg holes drilled by their party lines are the ones who are more likely not to seek re-election.

One of the major selling points of an Obama presidency was the promise of bipartisanship. Yet in the Senate, the simple threat of a filibuster by a 40-vote minority is enough to grind the lawmaking machinery to a standstill. (Yes, I know it is a 41-vote minority now, but this problem was happening well before Scott Brown was elected to fill the late Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat.)

I’m not pinning the ineffectiveness problem solely on the standing Republican threat to filibuster. I’m positive that at least several Republican senators would be more willing to reach across the political aisle if they didn’t have to worry about the severe backlash they would get from conservative pundits like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, not the mention the whole TEA Party movement.

You see, the Republicans who plan to stay in office are worried about losing support of the far right wing of their party. And now it seems that same worry is spilling over to the Democratic side, because Bayh reportedly told aides he is frustrated with the far left wing of his party, including leftist bloggers who have been blasting him for not agreeing with every single thing the Obama administration has proposed.

The “us and them” mentality has never been so apparent in Congress. Whether it’s the Republicans or Democrats, politicians are clearly scared of what partisan pundits and vocal citizens publicly say about them, more than they ever seemed to worry about them before.

I’m not saying people don’t have the right to criticize politicians – they absolutely do, and I do my fair share of it – but to distill everything into black and white – or red and blue, if you prefer – does a disservice to the issues Congress needs to address.

And I’m convinced the partisan pundits – the ones who are quick to call politicians who don’t toe their party lines un-American – are really the ones undermining our political process, and they don’t care if they do, as long as they make plenty of money while doing it.

This needs to change. Unfortunately, it increasingly seems we’re past the point of no return.

This column was originally published in the Feb. 18 edition of Ottawa Delivered.


U.S. Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana announced this morning on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” that he and 14 other moderate Democratic senators are meeting regularly to discuss ways they can influence the Democratic agenda to be more centrist.

When I first heard this news, my gut reaction was that the 15 Democrats are making waves because they are unhappy about the direction taken by the Obama administration. As Chris Cillizza noted on The Washington Post‘s political blog, The Fix, Bayh is no stranger to critiquing White House decisions:

“I can understand why there is a desire for unanimity,” said Bayh in an interview with The Fix this afternoon. “But a certain amount of policy debate usually leads to better outcomes.”

A quick examination of the early days of the Obama administration reveals that Bayh has backed up that rhetoric with action.

He was one of just three Senate Democrats who voted against the $410 billion omnibus spending bill and he urged President Obama to veto the bill in a high profile op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. (Obama did not.) Bayh also has expressed doubts about the amount of money dedicated to health care reform and climate change in the president’s budget, calling for an emphasis on lowering costs rather than simply spending more.

Bayh later released a statement saying the group will focus on “the upcoming budget negotiations and the importance of passing a fiscally responsible spending plan in the Senate.”

Another member of the centrist coalition, U.S. Sen. Mark Begich of Alaska, said on MSNBC that he doesn’t consider the group as opposing the president.

“I don’t think you should consider us opposing the president at all,” Begich said. “I think we agree with his priorities when it comes to education and energy and figuring out how to reduce this deficit and making sure we have a good health care plan. It’s to make things happen.

“And now I think some of the press has said, well, this is an opposition to the president. That’s just not accurate. What we are trying to do is — there are more of us now, more moderates from western states and other communities that want to make sure when we put pieces of legislation on the table, that we can move them forward and get them done.

“A great example of that was the stimulus bill,” Begich continued. “It was (Democratic) moderates that came together with moderates from the Republican Party that pushed that to the final moment and getting it passed. It was logjammed up.

“What we are is practical. We want to get things done. But I would not portray us as an opposition at all to the president. What we are is some in the majority who want to get things done, are practical and want to see this country move forward on major issues.”

Actually, I suspect the centrist view is more in line with the president’s approach to governing than the far-left liberalism of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her kind. The centrist coalition may be exactly what Obama needs to maintain his reputation for bipartisan approach. For that reason, the president and his administration should welcome the creation of this coalition.