Analysis by Debbie Coleman-Topi
The decision by Congressman Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), to walk away from a third term in Congress due to what he calls incessant bickering and partisanship, could have led to more bickering. But, it hasn't. Instead, the rancid state of Congress seems to be the only issue on which Congressmen on both sides of the aisle can agree.
Like a child on the playground who's tired of the bickering of his playmates, U.S. Sen. Bayh threw up his arms in disgust and stomped off, refusing to play anymore. In doing so, the second-term senator walked away from a successful political career in which even political insiders agree he was destined for re-election.
In fact, until his sudden announcement earlier this week, Bayh and his staff had been aggressively campaigning. He wasn't afraid to list his reasons for what seems a sudden, unexpected decision, citing a "dysfunctional" political system, plagued by hyper-partisanship, permanent campaigning, an unwillingness to compromise and pandering to special interest groups who, in return for political favors, are quick to share their wealth.
Locally, Congressman Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.), agreed that Congress has a bad case of partisanship, calling it "a serious situation that requires serious attention."
Cleaver said that he and about a half-dozen of his colleagues in the House are working to resolve the conflicts. The group is so convinced that reform is necessary that they've taken a drastic measure; conducting lessons in civil discourse for their collegues.
Twice, Cleaver and a colleague from the group took the floor and conducted hour-long debates on an issue in a civil manner in an attempt to demonstrate to their colleagues how to play nice.
In an interview with the Kansas City Tribune, Cleaver said the demonstration was designed to show "how to work together, how to throw away, after 5 o'clock, any bitterness."
Bayh's announcement highlighted that the plight of Congress is no longer a secret or isolated to the Hill. In essence, Bayh turned a whisper of malcontent into a shout out to the world.
"This could bring things to a boil," said Charles Moran, a 40-year political instructor at Rockhurst College, Kansas City, Mo. "You're going to hear more about this one."
Even political insiders who watch from a distance agree about excessive partisanship. They also claim such an unwillingness to compromise prevents Congress from accomplishing the very tasks voters elect them to perform--the drafting, and eventual passage--of legislation.
We need only to think back on our school civics lessons to remember Congress's main function is enacting legislation designed to make our country more secure and democratic. So flawed is our current system that today’s school children might barely recognize the system described in their textbooks and touted by their teachers.
Woody Overton, a Kansas City-area man who worked in the presidential campaigns of Bill Clinton and Al Gore and was Congressman Thomas Eagleton's state director for ten years, agreed there's too much disagreeing.
"I think Congress has become more dysfunctional," Overton said. Citing what he called "a record number of fillibusters" as proof, Overton stated that Congress is "more partisan than...I can remember since (his political involvement began) in the 1960s."
Moran agreed with Overton's assessment that Congress has slipped into a never-before-seen state.
"I can't think of anything being this partisan from the mid-60s to the present," Moran said.
Cleaver said he has his own proof of Congress's problems. Cleaver cited Rep. Joe Wilson's outburst this past fall as an example of what he calls a lack of civility. During Obama's report to Congress on health care, the South Carolina Republic yelled out "you lie”.
Cleaver said some of the blame for such Congressional woes falls on the media, which rewards bad behavior with publicity.
"Members who don't throw bombs or have tantrums don't get attention," Cleaver said. "Joe Wilson was not known outside his neighborhood until that day. If you have an affair with an intern..."
In his remarks during his announcement, Bayh didn't leave voters without any options to fix Congress. He suggested voting incumbents out of office en masse, replacing them with a new breed.
Overton agreed, saying, "People are going to have to wake up and elect those who know how to compromise."
Cleaver cited another reason for Congress's lack of cooperation. He said Congressmen returning home to their districts each weekend has resulted in a lack of camaraderie.
Members of Congress began the practice a few years ago after reports in the media claimed that Congress was out of touch with its constituencies. Many members of Congress engage in town hall meetings during the weekends in an attempt to stay tuned into the needs of those in their districts.
In addition, returning home solved another issue facing many incumbents when opponents would count a lack of weekend visits as "being out of touch." The result is that Congress has grown out of touch with each other, Cleaver said.
"We interact only in controversial committee meetings and on the floor," he added. "There's no time to interact socially."
In addition, easier, faster air travel has made trips back home more feasible. Before air travel was convenient and available, Congressmen moved to Washington, DC, with their families, Cleaver said.
"In the old days, the children of the Republican members would play on the same little league team with the children of the Democrats and strong friendships formed," the congressman said.
Christian Morgan, a Kansas City-area Republican political consultant, said the public blames the party in power, the Democrats, for the current state of the economy and the seemingly never-ending battle over health care.
Morgan, a political consultant with Axiom Strategies and former executive director of the Kansas Republican Party, said the Obama administration's first year is comparable to that of Bill Clinton, whom he described as "a young, vibrant leader that could be post-partisan, but turned out to be hyper-partisan."
Morgan blames the media for falsely hyping Obama as a peacemaker. "If you listened to the media, you would have thought the second coming was happening, but nothing has happened," he said.
But Cleaver said the problems in Congress could be traced to a much earlier time when the Republicans were in power.
"This didn't start when the Democrats took over," he said. "It was the Newt Gingrich revolution in 1994," he said, referring to the Republican who led his party to victory in the White House, capturing the majority of house seats for the first time in 40 years.
As for Congress in the future, Cleaver said he expects to see more of his colleagues walk away like Sen. Bayh.
"There are a lot of talented and creative people who either won't go (to Congress), or won't stay once they see how ugly it is."