Former Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh, speaking to a group of about 25 students, faculty and staff in the Widney Alumni House on Friday, advocated for more bipartisanship and compromise in American politics.
During a private luncheon hosted by the USC Schwarzenegger Institute for State and Global Policy, Bayh spoke and answered questions for nearly an 1 1/2 hours on topics ranging from China to passing a budget. Bayh, a moderate Democrat who sits on the institute’s board of advisers, retired from the Senate in 2011 after his second term because of gridlock and political polarization.
Bayh emphasized the importance of working together and crossing party lines to pass legislation. The former senator said when his father served as a Democratic senator from 1963 to 1981, members of both parties would meet regularly. More recently, however, Bayh said it has become extremely rare for Republican and Democratic legislators to meet together for lunch, although both groups caucus separately to discuss policy each week.
“[There were] only three times in 12 years that everyone got together to work on something substantively,” Bayh said.
This comment incited several reactions and comments from guests.
“That was the most striking [thing Bayh said] — how all their meetings are separate,” said Global Director for the Schwarzenegger Institute Bonnie Reiss after the lunch.
Though Bayh said he is optimistic for the future, he believes legislators should be encouraged to work across the aisle more often.
“If you were in the private sector, this would be a job for industrial psychology or for systems design,” Bayh said.
According to Bayh, campaign finance and the polarization of the media are two issues contributing to the problem of responsible governance.
Though Bayh said he had never seen any outright corruption during his time in Washington, D.C., he said when individuals or special interests donate large sums, the money comes with strings attached. Bayh disagrees with the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which said independent political donations from corporations and unions could not be regulated.
“The biggest problem, frankly, is the court’s interpretation of the Constitution,” Bayh said.
Still, Bayh said he believes the public is ultimately responsible for spurring campaign finance reform since current polls find that the public does not see a connection between campaign spending and effective government.
The luncheon guests included student leaders from political organizations in addition to faculty and staff involved in the new Schwarzenegger Institute, which launched in September.
“There sure are a lot of ‘presidents’ here today,” said former California State Assembly Speaker Robert Hertzberg.
At the lunch, Bayh also predicted President Barack Obama to win the election come Nov. 6, but by an extremely slim margin.
“If you put a gun to my head today, I’d say he’s going to be re-elected,” Bayh said, “[but] it’s going to be close.”
Though Bayh did not spend much time discussing the media, he did quip about how the campaigns have worked to negatively portray their opponents in swing states, such as Ohio.
“You’d be convinced that we have two criminal imbeciles running for president,” he said.
Reiss said Bayh serves an example of the type of leader the institute hopes to bring to campus.
“I’m proud when the institute can play a role in bringing leaders like Evan Bayh to an important leadership discussion … particularly when he is so knowledgeable about how to move forward and create the type of politics that serves the people best,” Reiss said.
Toward the end of the lunch, Hertzberg shared several stories about his attempts to foster bipartisanship in the California State Assembly, such as rearranging seating location and planning social events.
Hertzberg added that it is the responsibility of the younger generation to employ technology to fix the what’s broken in government, including the lack of involvement.
“The reason why government is failing is no one is participating,” Hertzberg said.
Bayh concluded his talk by underscoring the importance of working together to find a middle ground on different issues.
“We need to get back to the idea of principled compromise,” Bayh said. “We got to get back to the notion that some progress is better than none.”