Bayh says it, epitomizes it

U.S. Sen. Evan Bayh, centrist Democrat of Indiana, spoke precisely and profoundly last week about part of the problem with Washington.

As for the part of the problem he didn't speak about ... well, he epitomizes that.

No discussion of Bayh's sudden and stunning retirement should go without mentioning that he is generally unpopular with senators, seen as not hard-working and as interested mostly in his own ambitions, which were plausibly for the presidency not too long ago.

Typically, he announced his retirement without any fair warning to his party leadership and within days of the filing period in red-state Indiana. So now scurrying Democrats will probably lose his seat and maybe the congressional seat of any Democratic House member seeking to succeed him in the Senate.

But Bayh's harsh valedictory lamentation about the diseased state of congressional politics was candid and compelling, if overstated in part.

He talked of how the late Republican Senate leader Everett Dirksen once walked up to his late father, Birch Bayh, a liberal Democrat also representing Indiana in the Senate, and asked if there was anything he could do to help with Birch's re-election campaign.

That kind of interparty respect and alliance is unthinkable now, Evan Bayh said, because of the rising power of ideology-driven money and the culture of partisan stridency and distrust it foments.

That Evan is no Birch is probably not the point. Mitch McConnell is no Everett Dirksen, either.

Bayh made clear last week, though, that he believed there were good and well-meaning people still in the Senate. But he said they were stymied by the greater power of the partisan extremes. As a result, he said, a woefully insufficient number of senators is willing to venture to the other side -- or to reach back to the overtures of the other side -- to fashion practical solutions.

Partisan punishment is feared. Concern about which side would get greater credit stymies instincts for co-operation.

Bayh said he could go back to Indiana and start a company hiring one employee and get more accomplished for the economy than he could be assured of accomplishing as a member of the U.S. Senate.

The part he overstated was that we'd be better off if every incumbent got beat and we just started over with all fresh faces. That's losing the baby with the bath water, and it sounds too much like term limits.

If some of the people in Congress are able and sincere, stymied by the more powerful culture, as Bayh says, then the better immediate answer is for vocal citizens and responsible public servants to attack and reform the culture, not to eject every single incumbent.

Now to that part of the problem that Bayh epitomizes: It's the part about the incestuous nature of our political and corporate cultures, which causes citizens not to trust that our politicians act as much in the citizens' policy interests as in the politicians' personal ones.

Bayh's wife, Susan, is a lawyer who formerly worked for Eli Lilly and taught in law school. Today she is a professional sitter on corporate boards. She currently sits on eight, drawing in the vicinity of $1 million a year in directors' fees.

Among those boards is that of WellPoint, a giant Indianapolis-based health insurer.

So when her husband evaded on a public health insurance option and then came out against using budget reconciliation to proceed in the Senate with a 51-vote majority, how could we be assured he wasn't worried about the gravy his wife was bringing home?

We couldn't.

We need new kinds of households of our elected representatives.

We need ones that are not so deeply invested in the special interests affected by public policy.

We need husbands and wives who'd give up some private income for the greater cause of integrity in public service.

John Brummett ( is a columnist for the Arkansas News Bureau in Little Rock.