Evan Bayh served as Governor of Indiana from 1989 to 1997 and Senator from Indiana from 1999 to 2011. He currently serves as co-chair of No Labels, an organization seeking to promote bipartisan cooperation and problem solving.
Harvard Political Review: After the government shutdown, many people were pessimistic about the chances for bipartisanship in Washington. Could you explain how No Labels might be different from the conventional way people talk about this issue?
Evan Bayh: Let me give you my thirty thousand foot take before I talk about No Labels. I will sort of describe myself as an anterior skeptic but I’m also optimistic. We’ve got ideological divisions in our society, but the divisions aren’t so deep that they can’t be reconciled. The problem is that several systemic things in our political process are dramatically exacerbating philosophical differences of opinion.
In the House, it’s kind of obvious that the gerrymander has really affected the makeup of the chamber. For example, last year around 1.2 to 1.4 million more Americans voted for Democratic candidates in the House of Representatives, but the Republicans have a 32-seat majority. And if the Democrats had their way, they’d do the same thing.
In turn, Senators are looking at cases where mainstream Republicans lose to further-right candidates and they think to themselves, “Okay, if I compromise at all, I’ll get a primary challenge, or get challenged at my nominating convention.” Thus Republican senators much more reluctant to compromise.
This is all made exponentially worse by the role of big money, following the Citizens United case. Take my home state of Indiana, for instance. Last year a six-term incumbent Republican Senator, Richard Lugar, was challenged in my state’s primary by a fellow named Richard Murdoch, who had only been a county official. And Murdoch beat him. That would have never happened before Citizens United, because Richard Murdoch wouldn’t have been able to raise any money. Instead, five to six million dollars flood into the state in negative ads against Dick Lugar by the Club for Growth, Freedom Works, and Heritage Action.
So now we can turn to No Labels. On a micro level, we try to get the members of Congress to work together more, to get to know one another more. These people don’t spend any time together anymore outside of trying to defeat one another in elections. No Labels is actually trying to get them to focus on building working relationships, starting in areas where there may be some common ground so that they can get to know one another.
On a macro level, No Labels is trying to motivate more moderates and more independents from both parties to participate in the political process—to take the political process back from the extremes. And so if you had more voters participating in primaries and in general elections, the kind of extreme behavior that we’re seeing right now that’s led to gridlock would be a lot less.
HPR: Could you expand on, at least at the micro level, some of those issues that you think maybe politicians on both sides might be able to agree on?
EB: Well they’ve got one thing passed already, which is the No Budget No Pay Act. For several years, Congress hadn’t even attempted to pass a budget. Most families have a budget; state and local governments have a budget, and when I was governor, I always introduced a budget every year. Congress even stopped trying.
This initiative basically said if Congress doesn’t at least pass a budget, they’re not going to get paid. And so for the first time in a long time, the House passed a budget right away. The Senate, which had stopped for the last three years, actually passed a budget. As it turns out, it took the threat of actually taking their compensation away to get them to do it, but it worked.
It might have turned out that the No Budget No Pay legislation didn’t go far enough because it didn’t say that Congress actually had to pass a budget that the president signed. And so the House passed their budget and the Senate passed their budget, and there haven’t even been even been committees to work the budget out. So, they did enough to make sure they got paid and then they stopped.
Ultimately, the bipartisan muscle has atrophied. It’s got to be retrained, and that’s exactly what No Labels is attempting to do. You wouldn’t believe how infrequently the members of the Senate (and the House might be even worse) get together anymore. I was in the Senate for 12 years, and I can only think of three times other than purely ceremonial occasions when all 100 senators got together to debate something and actually listen to each other. It just does not happen. Literally, years go by without that happening. And it’s intentional. The leadership does not want the members to talk to one another because they’re afraid of losing control of them.
HPR: You’ve publically voiced concerns about our growing debt problem and your state enjoyed its highest ever budget surplus under you governorship. Do you have any suggestions for fixing our national debt problem?
EB: Well, if it were easy, it would have been done. I think there are deep ideological differences about that. The path of least resistance, which I think would be very damaging to the country, would be to just keep borrowing money until the credit markets won’t let you do that anymore. Interest rates will go up and the value of your currency will decline rapidly, which would be deeply damaging to our nation.
Just in broad terms, the most important thing you can do to get the country’s fiscal house in order is to grow the economy. It’s amazing how much more money comes into the federal treasury for even modest increases of economic growth. When businesses spend, they hire, and in turn consumers spend too. So there is more revenue from income taxes, sales taxes, et cetera…
Secondly, just considering the budget and our fiscal situation from a static perspective, long-term entitlement reform is going to be vitally important. The irony of all this is that we’ve enacted the sequester, which is really just cutting discretionary spending, and we raised taxes in January on the more affluent. Anybody making over $400,000 dollars as an individual and more than $450,000 as a couple is going to pay higher taxes, raised capital gains taxes, and a number of other taxes. But, we didn’t address at all, not even in any way, the growing cost of entitlements. And it’s the part of the budget that will really break the bank over the next 30 to 40 years.
There’s one big asterisk I would give you and that is for last two or three years, the inflation rate for healthcare has been substantially lower. Regardless of the cause, this is going to be very important for Washington because if this is sustained over a longer period rather than a one-off temporary downturn, that could have profound implications for the long-term budget situation in the country.
This interview has been edited and condensed.