Evan and Jim: Diverse speakers of the truth

They’re very different, one from the other, Evan Bayh and Jim Bunning. Both senators, but one a Hoosier Democrat, the other a Kentucky Republican. One a sure-footed Capricorn, who has navigated the waters of Indiana and Senate politics for the past 24 years with hardly a misstep. The other a cantankerous old baseball pitcher who sometimes seems to enjoy stepping verbally on toes just to hear the owners of those toes squeal.

Despite the 24 years difference in their ages, each has served two terms, at the same time, in the U.S. Senate, and both are bowing out after this term. And both left some words for us to remember them by.

Evan Bayh announced on Feb. 15, to virtually everyone’s shock, that he would not seek a third term, for which he was expected to run this year and for which he had collected a reported $13 million in campaign contributions. Cynics and Republicans said that the moderate Democrat was afraid of defeat in this year of our discontent with the federal government, especially with my fellow Democrats who control it.

But Bayh insisted that he felt he could have won. He is leaving, he said, largely because he has become frustrated with trying to function in a Congress in which partisanship has turned more rancorous than it has for many years. “I do not love the Senate,” Bayh said,  prefaced by his declarations that he does love his state and nation.

Bayh had also spoken, on several occasions in recent months, on how the U.S. was nearing a fiscal meltdown due to the government’s excessive spending and borrowing, made worse by the current recession and the obsession with passing a health-care bill. To the usual Democratic noting of the Republican-controlled Congress’s reckless spending under President Bush from 2001 to 2007, Bayh also pointed out that his own party has done no better in the last three and one-half years of control, and perhaps has been worse. After all, they had a bad example to try to avoid.

When Scott Brown was elected as the first Republican senator from Massachusetts in a coon’s age, flipping over the “Ted Kennedy seat” held by the late senator for 47 years, Bayh said publicly, “If the Democrats don’t hear that wake-up call, they’ll never wake up.”

Bayh’s stunning announcement followed a few days later.

Jim Bunning announced last year that he would not be running again this year, saying his own party had sabotaged his fund-raising efforts. So everyone knew that the prickly former pitcher would not be on Kentucky’s ballot in November.

But on Feb. 27, Bunning threw his own thunderclap for the media to feed on, doing a one-Senator blockage of a unanimous vote being sought to approve an extension of unemployment benefits for more than one million Americans for whom benefits had run out. Why, asked Bunning, does the Senate want to violate the so-called “Pay-Go” bill that it passed recently, that provided for paying for further spending before committing itself to said spending. Bunning wanted to take the money needed for the extension from the already appropriated and largely unspent Stimulus Package of a year ago.

After several days of a stalemate in which Bunning refused to flinch or withdraw his opposition, a compromise was finally worked out. Which means that, in all probability, the extension was funded by adding the cost to the national credit card, borrowing the money from China, and passing the painful reckoning on to our children and grandchildren.

Both Bayh and Bunning will be gone next year — a middle-aged, middle-of-the road, smooth-as-silk Democrat who never speaks or acts rashly and who probably still has another successful campaign or two in front of him; and an aging, crotchety Republican who says what he damn well pleases and whose career is almost certainly over.

But as different as they are, Bayh and Bunning each spoke the truth, each in his own way. The Congress and the federal government as a whole is awash in bitter partisanship which is keeping anything meaningful from getting done.  We are headed for a financial disaster which Congress seems determined to pretend can be kicked down the road indefinitely.

I doubt that either Evan or Jim will get any satisfaction if, a few years from now, they’re both proven right.


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