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Evan Bayh and the Broken Senate

One of the big surprises of Democratic rule — perhaps it shouldn’t have been such a surprise — has been the degree to which Republican opposition has ground down the party’s agenda. While the Democrats only had a supermajority for four months, the 58-41 majority with which they began 2009 and the 59-41 majority with which they began 2010 are still the largest majorities either party has had since the 1970s — larger than the GOP’s majority since the 1920s. And it’s hard to think of Democratic initiatives or nominees that did not, at some point, have simple majority support.

In that context, this part of Sen. Evan Bayh’s (D-Ind.) withdrawal statement is befuddling…

Two weeks ago, the Senate voted down a bipartisan commission to deal with one of the greatest threats facing our nation: our exploding deficits and debt. The measure would have passed, but seven members who had endorsed the idea instead voted ‘no’ for short-term political reasons. Just last week, a major piece of legislation to create jobs — the public’s top priority — fell apart amid complaints from both the left and right. All of this and much more has led me to believe that there are better ways to serve my fellow citizens, my beloved state and our nation than continued service in Congress.

If Bayh has future national political ambitions, he’s in a unique position to know how the current behavior of the Senate makes it difficult for any president to get things

Senator Evan Bayh (Mark Murrmann/ZUMA Press)
Senator Evan Bayh (Mark Murrmann/ZUMA Press)

Senator Evan Bayh (Mark Murrmann/ZUMA Press)

done on “top priorities.” There’s literally no incentive for a minority party with 40 or more seats to let the majority party’s bills pass — the experience of Democrats in 2006, and the experience so far of Republicans in 2010 — is that obstruction offers the majority party less to show voters come Election Day. It also makes it harder for theoretical bipartisan coalition-building — what if Bayh only had to wrangle 50 senators, instead of 59, for a bill?

If Bayh wants to be president some day (and every indication is that he’s still thinking about it) he must realize how the behavior of the Senate would cut down his initiatives. He’s seen how an ideal Democratic situation — a massive majority in both houses, a popular president — was ground down by filibusters. So why not stay in the Senate and change that?

One theory from Steven Teles, a political scientist at Johns Hopkins:

Almost all Democratic moderates will resist procedural reforms in the Senate because they are much more worried about being pushed to vote on something that they’d prefer to remain silent on, than not being able to vote for something they do want to vote on. In political science terms, moderates in places like Indiana care about blame avoidance more than credit claiming and position taking. Since the filibuster prevents a significant number of recorded votes they just don’t want to make from occurring, it is in some ways just as essential to their electoral strategy as it is to the Republicans. That’s why Democrats shouldn’t count on any of the moderates supporting filibuster reform, unless supporters are able to muster enormous political power to push them to do so.

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