The misunderstood reason Congress can’t get its job done
© Greg Nash

Many Americans presume that our democracy is unraveling because our leaders are lazy or incompetent. But my years working in government have convinced me that’s not the case. The vast majority of individuals who aspire to public service—men and women in both parties—mean to serve the public. Indeed, as many Americans revile Congress, the truth is that our nation’s capital is full of optimistic, hardworking and capable people.

Here’s the problem: Good public servants from both parties are trapped in a broken system that discourages them from pursuing America’s best interests. People drawn to politics for the right reasons are compelled, once elected, to toe the party line—or risk becoming impotent iconoclasts, independent but ineffective. In all too many cases, the path to power compels thoughtful representatives to comply with party orthodoxy rather than do what they know is right. Rational short-term choices steer decent people away from the long run greater good.


The effects are unmistakable. Today, even when thoughtful, bipartisan ideas are available Congress remains deadlocked. The Problem Solvers Caucus, a bipartisan bloc of 48 members, have crafted three big substantive compromises since the last election: one on health care reform; one on immigration and border security; and one on infrastructure. But even with these bipartisan packages in hand, they’ve been stopped by a policymaking process that kills everything but the handful of ideas supported by ideological extremists. If we’re going to get the Congress moving again, we need to address the way it works.

First, let’s remember that Congress, while never perfect, hasn’t always been like this. When my father, Birch Bayh, served the people of Indiana as a Democrat in the United States Senate, he and one of his Republican colleagues, Kansas Republican Bob Dole, identified an important problem. Existing law thwarted innovation by preventing public universities from working collaboratively with private companies to turn new scientific breakthroughs into marketable products. At the time, conservatives were dubious about universities benefiting from taxpayer funded research, and liberals worried about private companies exploiting publicly funded studies. But my father and Sen. Dole worked out a compromise. That’s how American democracy is supposed to work, with both sides putting the greater good above their individual concerns. The result? Millions of Americans have better health care and both our universities and privates companies benefitted.

Fast forward several decades. In 2013, a group of eight senators, including John McCainJohn Sidney McCainAnother recession could hit US in 2019, says credit union association chief R-E-S-P-E-C-T: One legacy of Franklin and McCain is up to us To cure Congress, elect more former military members MORE (R-Ariz.) and Chuck SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerDemocrats should end their hypocrisy when it comes to Kavanaugh and the judiciary Celebrities back both Cuomo and Nixon as New Yorkers head to primary vote Dems launch million digital ad buy in top Senate races MORE (D-N.Y.), forged a bipartisan deal on immigration and border security. Unfortunately, the bill they wrote together—one which received rare support from more than two-thirds of the Senate—wasn’t even taken up by the House. And why? Because the policymaking process has gone off the rails. A small band of dogmatic members pressured the Speaker of the House, Rep. John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerJordan hits campaign trail amid bid for Speaker GOP senator says he 'regularly' considers leaving Republican Party Republicans mull new punishments for dissident lawmakers MORE (R-Ohio), to reject the bill out of hand. They were unwilling to compromise, threatened to bring down their own leader, and prevented legislation with potentially broad bipartisan support from ever receiving a vote.

Regrettably, that mentality now prevails. The House of Representatives is held in perpetual hostage by small bands of extremist members intent on excluding the other party from the policymaking process. The Senate is afflicted by endless and innumerable filibusters. And that makes it impossible for Washington to embrace the thoughtful legislation that propelled the Bayh-Dole Act to passage. The veto power of congressional extremists and the imperative for members seeking advancement to always toe the party line, has led to legislating by the lowest common denominator – usually nothing at all.

So what can we do? As No Labels has proposed, beyond changing any given policy, we need to reform the way policymaking is done in Washington. We need to pull power away from the partisan extremes. We need new rules that encourage bipartisan action. We need to find a way to encourage those ideas that weave together both parties’ priorities, and members will know that principled compromise and courage will be rewarded as much as subservience.

Here’s one way we could point Congress in the right direction: We should change the way the Speaker is chosen at the beginning of each Congress. Currently, the Speaker is elected exclusively by the majority party, with members of the minority voting for someone else. But what if candidates for Speaker were compelled to elicit support from, say, 60 percent of House members. In that case, perceptive leaders would almost surely need to earn the imprimatur of at least some members of the minority party. And that bipartisan support would inoculate the new Speaker from the threats of ideological extremists who, under current rules, can demand absolute ideological and partisan purity. Changing the rules would encourage dealmakers to usurp the power now held by the far left and far right.

Americans are frustrated with Washington—and rightly so. But rather than focus exclusively on what Washington needs to do to address our nation’s big challenges, it’s time we look at how it might get those things done. This is a moment to step back and take a serious look at process reform. If we’re going to reawaken the magic of American democracy, we need new rules. A broken system cannot deliver the progress Americans demand.

Evan Bayh served as governor of Indiana from 1989-1997 and as senator from 1999-2011. He is co-chair of No Labels.