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After Bayh, less bipartisanship needed

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By Katrina vanden Heuvel
Tuesday, February 16, 2010; 12:16 PM

So Evan Bayh, the Senate's poster boy for bipartisanship, is, in the immortal words of the Jackson 5, "goin' back to Indiana." The senator explains, "There is too much partisanship and not enough progress [in Congress] -- too much narrow ideology and not enough practical problem-solving." Bayh is correct -- there isn't enough practical problem-solving in Congress. But his brand of bipartisanship should not be mourned. In fact, the country would be better off with a lot less bipartisanship, in any form, right now.

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Bayh traded on his nominal party affiliation and the gold-plated liberal legacy of his father (whose seat he has occupied for two terms) to promote, as The Nation's John Nichols writes, "unnecessary wars, free trade and misguided domestic economic policies." Bayh's idea of bipartisanship, it would seem, was to call oneself a Democrat in the caucus while promoting center-right policies in the chamber. He worked to turn the Democratic Party into a kinder, gentler version of the GOP. And although the conventional wisdom is that his departure is bad news for Democrats, the caucus arguably would be stronger with 54 or 55 senators who would get real about governing and work to reform the anti-democratic filibuster than with a supermajority dependent on "conservadems" such as Bayh.

There are other variations of bipartisanship in Washington -- none of them having much to do with philosophical conviction. Bipartisanship, writes Nate Silver at fivethirtyeight.com, "has nothing to do with the philosophical orientation of a bill but instead simply who votes for it." The Atlantic's Derek Thompson writes that the "obsessive focus on bipartisanship for the purpose of bipartisanship only fetishizes something that Americans begin to value, and expect, and demand and neither party expects to work." It doesn't sign a worker's paychecks and it doesn't put food on the table.

Perhaps the latest, best example of the problem with bipartisanship is the Senate jobs bill. The $85 billion Baucus-Grassley version is seriously flawed. It would do little to create new jobs, yet it is larded with tax cuts and other extraneous incentives to get Republicans on board. What's the point? Well, as Politico noted, the release announcing the bill used the word "bipartisan" seven times. Meanwhile, apparently wanting to devise something more appealing to Democrats and yet to maintain the cover of bipartisanship, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has proposed a paltry $15 billion version of the bill that would be laughable if we weren't in a jobs crisis. A better template exists. The $154 billion House bill passed in December provides real aid to states and real investment in infrastructure and public jobs. But in the Senate, bipartisanship is the order of the day, which means job creation is secondary.

The irony is that the continued gridlock will no doubt lead to more unemployment -- for members of Congress themselves. In a mind-boggling New York Times/CBS News poll released yesterday, only 8 percent of Americans say that current members of Congress deserve reelection, the lowest figure since the Times began asking the question in 1992. Members of Congress should recognize that their employment is contingent on improving their constituents' lives, while bipartisan follies contribute to congressional do-nothingness.

Achieving progress through "practical problem-solving" shouldn't mean legislating as the wolf in sheep's clothing. And milquetoast conviction isn't what most of us want out of our senators. After all, even a fifth grader, charged up with public-school patriotism after reading Johnny Tremain, could tell you that compromised convictions in the name of "bipartisanship" are not what Esther Forbes had in mind when she closed her historical children's novel with, "A man can stand up."

The writer is editor of the Nation and writes a weekly column for The Post.


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