Last week, Evan Bayh came under fire from some progressives for leaving the Senate and likely handing his seat to a Republican in conservative Indiana. But this weekend, some of those same critics have some kinder words for the Indiana senator.
Bayh wrote a lengthy op-ed for the New York Times taking on a subject that’s been very much on the minds of Democrats these days: the filibuster. After offering some suggestions to improve cross-party relations, he presents some concrete proposals to end the abuse of filibusters:
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.
These are good ideas. Having sat in the Senate for 11 years now, Bayh has had a courtside view of the transformation of the filibuster into a tool for obstructing routine business by a minority party determined to grind government to a halt. As the chart below (from Norm Ornstein) demonstrates, the number of cloture motions to end filibusters took a dramatic jump in the 110th Congress:
Keep in mind: that chart only goes up to the end of the previous Congress. Updated through this one, it won’t look much better.
When Bayh announced his retirement, there was some skepticism about his stated reason for leaving, which he said was an increasingly dysfunctional Senate that prevented public problems from being solved. If you care so much, some said (with justification), why don’t you stay there and fix it? Well, it seems Bayh was, in fact, serious about his concerns. And now, it looks like he’s using the attention that his retirement has attracted to shine a spotlight on a procedural tactic that’s impeding our government’s ability to govern. If he keeps up the pressure and builds momentum toward an enduring fix of the filibuster, then that’ll be quite the twist to this drama: Evan Bayh had to leave the Senate to save it.