News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Opinion Columns

May 27, 2012

MARK BENNETT: Stuck in the middle with you

Bayh sees alternative grassroots groups giving voice to Americans demanding solutions, not point-scoring

Thank goodness, members of Congress do not drive in the Indianapolis 500.

“Disaster” would not begin to describe such a fiasco. Instead of applying speed and racing skill to progress through a field of 32 other drivers, a contingent of congressional racers would employ extreme measures. They’d drive their 200 laps around the 21⁄2-mile oval clockwise, opposite the traditional direction — “Turn left? Heck, no. We’re turning right from now on, and everybody else better do it our way.”

Mayhem? Black flags? Gridlock? Grandstands full of confused, irritated, disappointed people? Of course. But most importantly — at least in the minds of those defiant political racers — they would not budge, or compromise. They win.

That attitude now dominates Congress, where our elected officials are forcing the nation to re-live the debt-ceiling debate in “Groundhog Day” fashion.

Instead of dealing separately with the various components of the debt problem, such as particularly Medicare, they’re capitalizing on its election-year value by chaining such necessary work to the formality of raising the debt limit to pay the country’s outstanding bills. Like that Speedway scenario, the extremists remain unfazed by potential harm, such as another recession or weakened credit ratings.

Such impasse is the status quo in the 112th Congress.

An organization known as No Labels came up with “12 ways to make Congress work.” The first: no budget, no pay. If Congress can’t pass a budget and all spending bills on time, the members don’t get paid. That makes perfect sense.

No Labels identifies itself as a grassroots organization, neither Republican nor Democrat, conservative nor liberal, aiming instead to be “a voice to the disengaged majority.” Among the co-founders of the group that formed in 2010 is Evan Bayh, the former U.S. senator and governor from Indiana. After two terms in Congress, Bayh decided not to seek a third term. At that moment, his label, “moderate,” had become unacceptable on the growing polar ice caps of politics.

Washington accomplishes even less now. Bayh and No Labels hope voters in November support candidates anxious to find solutions.

“If they can find candidates who embody that kind of approach, I think [those candidates] will do pretty well,” Bayh said in a telephone interview Wednesday. “But if to the extent that any election devolves into a political food fight, then I think people say, ‘A pox on both your houses.’”

Just as in that fictional Indy 500, a large faction of extremists would have been unproductive among the Founding Fathers. “The country itself is a compromise,” Bayh said. “The United States of America wouldn’t exist if the founders of our country hadn’t been willing to put the sake of the country overhead of more parochial interests.” The 13 former colonies held deep disagreements, he explained.

“And it was a close call to whether America would be one nation, or 13 separate nations,” Bayh added. “I think it’s fortunate for us that the all-or-nothing approach that is so prevalent today in Washington didn’t exist back then, or there would not be a United States of America.”

That said, with Bayh and fellow No Labels supporters pushing for more compromise and less party-line behavior, why would he further deplete the number of centrists in Congress by stepping away from it all? Among several reasons, the climate just got too nasty for legislators willing to cross the political aisle. He painted a realistic picture of life in the middle on Capitol Hill.

“This is a particularly miserable time to be a moderate in our politics,” Bayh said, “because you tend to get shot at from both sides. I’m also more independent by nature, and it’s at a time when Congress is demanding down-the-line party and ideological loyalty, and that’s just not me.”

Those who buck the party-line expectations pay a price.

“For example, your bills don’t come up for a vote; your amendments don’t come up for a vote; you don’t get put on the committees that deal with the issues that are important to your state or that you care about,” Bayh said. “There are numerous ways, large and small, that the powers find their displeasure known; and that’s OK. On a personal level, you can take all that. But it basically neuters you and makes you ineffective. Well, the people who sent you to Washington have a right to expect you to be in a position to actually get things done. So that’s the balance that’s always a struggle.”

Americans at least 20 years old have witnessed the results of centrist prosperity in the 1990s.

“Bill Clinton started off running [for president] and said he stood for ‘a third way,’ right?” Bayh recalled. “Not far left, and not far right. He’s a friend of mine, so maybe I’m biased, but a lot of people look back now and say, ‘You know, that approach left this country with a balanced budget and a budget surplus. We had a strong economy, with lots of new, good jobs being created. We reformed welfare, trying to move people off government assistance and into paying jobs.’

“So that approach worked all right,” he continued, “Maybe we ought to try it more often.”

Cynics on the fringes will quickly credit Republicans in Congress, back then, for economic successes in the Clinton era. But, actually, that’s the whole point. Somehow, flawed people with divergent views found enough middle ground to eventually produce acceptable results, even after standoffs and federal government shutdowns.

Right now, it appears the powers in Congress are quite content to inflict default and dysfunction, rather than yield to negotiation.

Those politicians mistakenly think they have a mandate to be rigid. They’re giving themselves too much credit. Most of us don’t think those politicians are smart enough to have all the right answers.

“My strong sense is that people are very unhappy with Washington, and what they’re really looking for is more practical leadership and results,” Bayh said. “They don’t care so much about the labels you attach to it — Democrat, Republican, liberal, conservative. They want results — what creates jobs, what will get the deficit down, what will make health care more affordable [and] college more accessible? Those kind of real, middle-class, nuts-and-bolts issues. And they’re just going to keep voting against people until they finally get some better result.”

What are the chances of that happening? Winning your office Indy 500 pool is a safer bet.

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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