Recalling Richard Lugar and Birch Bayh, Indiana's two great senators 
© Getty Images

Richard Lugar, who served Indiana and the country superbly for 36 years in the Senate, died on April 28 at the age of 87. Just six weeks earlier, Birch Bayh, Indiana’s other great senator, died at the age of 91. Their Senate careers spanned a full half century, from Bayh’s election in 1962 to Lugar’s defeat in 2012. Their passing provides an opportunity to reflect on their service, recognize what senators once did for their country, and regret the long decline of the Senate where bitter hyper-partisanship and the “permanent campaign” trap capable people in a dysfunctional institution.

Lugar is rightly celebrated as one of a handful of senators in history who played a leading role in America’s foreign policy. In the 1980s, he played a central role in the legislation imposing sanctions on South Africa which brought about the end of apartheid, and the pressure on Philippines dictator Ferdinand Marcos which led to his ouster and the presidency of Corazon Aquino, the country’s first democratically elected leader. He is best remembered for his work with Sen. Sam Nunn, the Georgia Democrat, on the visionary legislation to secure and dismantle the nuclear weapons held by Russia and other former Soviet Republics after the fall of the Soviet Union---the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, better known by its shorthand “Nunn-Lugar.”  When President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaTrump on his 'chosen one' remark: 'It was sarcasm' Kentucky basketball coach praises Obama after golf round: 'He is a really serious golfer' Biden evokes 1968, asks voters to imagine if Obama had been assassinated MORE awarded Lugar the Presidential Medal of Freedom, he noted that “his legacy…is the thousands of missiles and bombers and submarines and warheads that no longer threaten us.”  Lugar also worked with the Obama administration to overcome Republican resistance and ratify two major arms control treaties: the pact banning chemical weapons in 1997 and the New START nuclear weapons reduction treaty.

ADVERTISEMENT

Lugar’s foreign policy accomplishments were more enough to secure his legacy as a great senator. But also played an extraordinary role in fashioning the creative legislation that provided the financial rescue of New York City in 1978, paving the way for the city’s subsequent economic boom. Serving just his second year in the Senate, but universally respected for his exceptional tenure as mayor of Indianapolis, Lugar found a way to give New York the loan guarantees it needed but under such stringent conditions that it did not lead to other cities coming to Washington seeking a bailout. The next year, he again played a key role in the rescue of Chrysler Corporation.

Birch Bayh came to the Senate as a young man (34), and served three terms (half as long as Lugar), before being defeated by Dan Quayle in the 1980 tidal wave election of Ronald Reagan. Bayh left a legacy that was, in its own way, as remarkable as Lugar’s. He played the lead role in defeating two of Richard Nixon’s Supreme Court nominees; and was the principal architect of the 25th amendment to the Constitution, dealing with presidential disability; the 26th amendment, changing the voting age to 18; and the landmark Title IX of the Civil Rights Act, which provided a powerful impetus to more equal treatment of women in intercollegiate sports.  

While embroiled in a fierce fight for re-election, Bayh took on the thankless task of chairing a Senate inquiry into whether President Carter’s brother had exerted improper influence on America’s policy toward Libya. The thorough, bipartisan investigation made it clear that the Carter administration had not been involved.

In the lame duck session of 1980, after he had been defeated, Bayh worked with Bob Dole to push through the Bayh-Dole legislation reforming patent policy. In 2002, an article in Economist Technology Quarterly entitled “Innovation’s Golden Goose” described Bayh-Dole as “perhaps the most inspired piece of legislation to be enacted in America in the past half century….[It] unlocked inventions and discoveries that had been made in laboratories throughout the United States with the help of taxpayers’ money. More than anything, this single policy measure helped to reverse America’s precipitous slide into industrial irrelevance.” 

ADVERTISEMENT

Bayh and Lugar were talented individuals, but also very representative of the Senate of their era. Bayh was the youngest member of the memorable Senate class of 1962, which included Ted Kennedy (Mass.), Daniel Inouye (Hawaii), Abraham Ribicoff (Conn.), Gaylord Nelson (Wis.), George McGovern (S.D.) and Tom McIntyre (N.H.). The arrival of that group coincided with the beginning of the liberal Senate’s greatest accomplishments. 

A decade and a half later, in the elections of 1976 and 1978, with the liberal tide running out, Lugar arrived in the Senate along with a group of moderate Republicans, including William Cohen (Maine), Nancy Kassebaum (Kan.), John Warner (Va.), John Danforth (Mo.), John Heinz (Pa.), John Chafee (R.I.), and Alan Simpson (Wyo.), who became key figures in the right-of-center, but still formidable, Senate of the 1980s, led by Howard Baker (Tenn.) and Bob Dole (Kan.).

The presidency of Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpDavid Axelrod after Ginsburg cancer treatment: Supreme Court vacancy could 'tear this country apart' EU says it will 'respond in kind' if US slaps tariffs on France Ginsburg again leaves Supreme Court with an uncertain future MORE dominates the political landscape today. But the Senate is the institution that has failed us the longest and the worst. Its long decline, over nearly 30 years, opened the door to a celebrity outsider president, who is unqualified and corrupt, and the Senate’s continuing downward spiral raises grave doubts about whether it can play the fundamental role envisioned by our Founders: to check a dangerous president. In their last years, Birch Bayh and Richard Lugar hated what the Senate had become. But then, so do the current senators, and the American people.

Ira Shapiro, a former Senate staffer and Clinton administration trade official, is the author of Broken: Can the Senate Save Itself and the Country?, a sequel to The Last Great Senate: Courage and Statesmanship in Times of Crisis.