Bayh eyes a more functional Senate

BAYH EYES A MORE FUNCTIONAL SENATE…. I’ve occasionally had less than kind things to say about Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), and the explanation for his unexpected retirement hasn’t helped.

But the centrist Hoosier has a fairly long op-ed in the New York Times today, which I found quite compelling. The piece is ostensibly about why Bayh is leaving Congress, but it’s actually more helpful in presenting the senator’s suggestions for improving the functionality of the chamber.

Bayh notes that despite “challenges of historic import,” which “threaten America’s future,” our “legislative institutions fail to act.” That’s true. “Congress must be reformed,” Bayh added, which is also true.

Some of Bayh’s recommendations seem cosmetic and maybe a little hokey — he talks about “changing the personal chemistry among senators,” in part through more frequent interactions and regular luncheons — but there’s probably something to this. The senator also highlights the problems associated with “the current campaign finance system that has such a corrosive effect on Congress,” problems which are likely to worsen in the wake of the Citizens United ruling.

But I was especially interested in Bayh’s thoughts on 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. […]

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.

I’d prefer to see the filibuster eliminated altogether, but Bayh’s suggestions are well taken, and seem more than reasonable.

And it’s important that this is coming from Bayh, who, perhaps more than any other lawmaker right now, has the kind of centrist credibility that resonates with the media establishment. As we talked about the other day, his concerns and support for reform position changing the status quo as a necessary, mainstream idea.

Any change at all remains, at best, a long-shot. But Bayh is at least bringing visibility to the issue, characterizing reform as a moderate goal, and (hopefully) helping educate observers about how to improve a dysfunctional system — broken on purpose by Republicans — that may very well “imperil the republic.”