February 16, 2010 1:50PM

Evan Bayh and Congressional Comity

Today Politico Arena asks:

Is Bayh’s lament on target?

My response:

The heart of Evan Bayh’s surprising announcement yesterday that he would not be seeking another term in the Senate was captured in three short sentences:

For some time, I have had a growing conviction that Congress is not operating as it should. There is too much partisanship and not enough progress — too much narrow ideology and not enough practical problem‐​solving. Even at a time of enormous challenge, the peoples’ business is not being done.

Beguilingly attractive as those sentiments may be, suggesting that some Golden Age of congressional comity has been lost, a candid look at our history shows that comity has been the exception, not the rule. And it’s occurred mainly when one party dominated Congress, as Democrats did during a fair part of the post‐​War period while Republicans were searching for their identity. So why not over the past year, when those conditions seemed to be in place? Is there something about today’s congressional divisiveness that distinguishes it from the past? I submit that there is, that it’s not narrow policy differences that mainly underpin what we’re seeing, but that the nation is up against a fundamental reality that much of the public is coming to see, even if many in Congress are slow to grasp it.

To barely summarize the matter, the Constitution sets forth a plan for limited government, not for government engaged in all manner of “problem‐​solving,” as Bayh put it — the problems of private life, mostly, from retirement security, to health care, education, job‐​creation, you name it. But for more than a century, Progressives have worked to overturn that design. And their something‐​for‐​nothing promises that have spurred the ever‐​greater socialization of life have attracted enough people to make it seem that we were, wonderfully, “all in this together,” especially since the costs of socialization were largely put off to the future. That’s the “comity” of the good life on borrowed money. But those costs cannot be put off forever. Eventually, they come due. And when they do, the differences between those who come finally to recognize reality, and those who still live the dream, are irreconcilable — because reality doesn’t “compromise.” I submit that we’re now at that point.

Not that there haven’t been voices decrying our episodic flights from reality all along — indeed, from the nation’s founding. But the post‐​New Deal trends, and the critique of those trends that came to wider attention through the Goldwater‐​Reagan revolution within the Republican Party, which the two Bush presidencies inflamed and thus sharpened, have produced a perfect congressional storm, so to speak, with irreconcilable proposals for how to get out of the mess looming before us. At bottom, in short, two different conceptions of government are at war.

Senator Bayh tells us that he looks forward to working with the president during the next 11 months “to get our deficit under control, get the economy moving again, regulate Wall Street to avoid future financial crises, and reform education.” Yet his party’s actions, building on many of the Bush administration’s, have given us a deficit unprecedented by orders of magnitude, an economy stagnating due largely to political uncertainty, an analysis of our financial crisis that blames Wall Street while all but ignoring the role of the Fed and government‐​sponsored enterprises like Fannie and Freddie, and an approach to educational “reform” that denies poor children in the District of Columbia the vouchers that have enabled them to flee our appalling public schools. Compromise? How does one compromise with a proposal to expand Medicare when the program itself is moving fast toward bankruptcy?

Which brings us to the nub of the matter. It’s easy to get into socialism. Getting out is much harder, as the nations of Eastern Europe discovered, and are still seeing. It is here that compromise and comity are needed — to chart a way out. But that will never be achieved as long as there are enough in Congress who cling to the something‐​for‐​nothing myths that have brought us to this state. A comity that shields us from this reality is no answer to the divisiveness before us. If the elections of the past few months are any indication, the people are ahead of the politicians in seeing this — and that’s a good thing. If war is needed to reclaim a footing in reality, bring it on.