Opinion

Could Bayh and the Reruns Reboot the Senate?

Veterans understand process, art of give-and-take

Evan Bayh could bring some institutional knowledge back to a dysfunctional Senate, writes Patricia Murphy. (Bill Clark/Roll Call via Getty Images File Photo)

Evan Bayh wants his old job back. So does Russ Feingold, who is mounting a rematch against his old foe, Sen. Ron Johnson, in Wisconsin. And Marco Rubio, who just last year suggested Senate votes mean nothing, has changed his mind, too, and now wants to stay.  

Feingold, Rubio and Bayh are the left, right and center of American politics, but together their collective decision to run for the Senate again could help the troubled institution get its groove back, by putting experience back in. It's an ingredient both the House and Senate have lost precipitously over the past four election cycles.  

According to the Congressional Research Service , the average length of service for both House and Senate members has declined by about a year for every new Congress since 2009.  

At the beginning of the 111th Congress, the average House member had served 10.1 years, while the average senator had been in office for 12 years and three months. After the "tea party takeover" elections in 2010 and a series of high-profile retirements and defeats for legislative veterans, the average length of service for a House member is now 8.8 years and 9.7 years for a senator.  

As the amount of experience for members has dropped steadily every Congress for the past eight years, so has the amount of work getting done. According to the Brookings Institution, the more-experienced 111th Congress passed 383 bills that became law. The 112th Congress passed 283, while the 113th passed just 72.  

[ Evan Bayh to Run for Indiana Senate ]  

Of course, other factors can be blamed for the drop in output, including leadership decisions and a corresponding fall in the number of days lawmakers are actually in session.  

But in my conversations with veteran Hill staffers, the growing lack of legislative experience in each new Congress came up as a unexpected sticking point for progress.  

During the 2011 push for a comprehensive overhaul of immigration laws, then-House Speaker John Boehner repeatedly said one of his goals was "member education."  

His staff explained to me that with so many newcomers in the caucus, freshmen were unfamiliar with both the mechanics of the legislative process and the basic details of the existing immigration system they were trying to change.  

Likewise, I've spoken this year with committee staffers going into all-too-rare conference negotiations, who were stunned at how many members were confused by the basics of how those worked.  

Along with knowledge of the process, members who have been in the House or Senate before, as Bayh, Rubio and Feingold have, typically gain the kind of knowledge and influence that only comes from being there  — knowing how much they can give on an issue, having relationships with leaders, and understanding the motivations of other members on a personal and professional level. These are all pieces of the complex puzzle it takes to get major legislation passed, but they come only with experience.  

[ Rubio to Seek Re-election to Senate ]  

Coming back to the Senate isn't always easy, or even possible. George Allen and Bob Kerrey attempted comebacks in 2012, as did Scott Brown, two years later. Voters rejected all three. Feingold and Bayh would be just the second duo since 1956 to make it back to their old jobs in the same year, according to Dr. Eric Ostermeier at the University of Minnesota. His running tally of all senators getting a second act in the history of the chamber is up to 150.  

On his way out the door in 2010, Bayh called the Senate a place of "strident partisanship and unyielding ideology." Hopefully, if he, Rubio and Feingold get the chance, they'll learn from the Senate's mistakes and change it for the better.  

If nothing else, giving these guys back their old desks (or in Rubio's case, letting him keep his), might help the institution reclaim its days of legislating, instead of just lecturing, and getting more accomplished for the American people than it has lately.