Last month, Senator Evan Bayh from Indiana surprised the political world when he announced his retirement. Among the several reasons he cited for that decision, Senator Bayh pointed to his frustration with an almost pandemic lack of cooperation between Republicans and Democrats.
That frustration, while understandable, may have been premature. Within a week of Senator Bayh's announcement, Missouri's two Senators demonstrated that bipartisanship and independent thinking are still possible in Washington.
On February 19, Senator Claire McCaskill defied Democratic Party leaders when she co-signed with several colleagues a letter to the Environmental Protection Agency, questioning that agency’s latest plan to regulate carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Three days later, Senator Kit Bond broke ranks with his Republican colleagues to help advance a $15 billion jobs bill.
In both cases, the Senators placed the interests of their constituents ahead of party politics. Senator McCaskill was concerned about the economic impact of carbon regulations on Missouri’s economy, which counts on coal for much of its electricity. Senator Bond recognized the potential benefits to Missouri of the highway funds attached to the jobs bill.
Indiana’s Senator Bayh might say these examples of cross-aisle cooperation and independent thinking are the exception not the rule in Washington. He would, of course, be right: The February 25 health care summit proved that we have a long way to go before the two parties can reach agreement on major legislation. But the defiant actions of Senators Bond and McCaskill still give us reason for hope. They also present us with a challenge.
Senator Bond plans to retire later this year, although for different reasons than Senator Bayh. In Senator Bond's case, he recognized the natural end of a storied career.
As Missourians consider the candidates vying for Senator Bond’s open seat, we should demand answers from them on a number of questions. Those questions should include these:
First, on which issues do you have a different point of view than your party's leadership?
Second, on which issues do you believe the pragmatic concerns of your constituents outweigh the ideology of your party?
Third, how and when will you apply independent thinking to your decisions, even if that thinking leads you to contradict your party’s platform?
No, these are not the typical questions that voters ask of candidates. But they are the questions we should ask more often – especially if we want our politicians to exhibit more independent thinking rather than less; especially if we believe that inter-party cooperation should be the rule not the exception.
(The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of St. Louis Public Radio.)
Pete Abel is a public affairs executive. He serves on the boards of Stages St. Louis and the Greater Missouri Chapter of the Tourette Syndrome Association. Previously, he served as managing editor of the political blog “The Moderate Voice.” His career started in 1985, first as a freelance reporter and later as a full-time staff writer for the St. Louis Suburban Journals, covering municipal politics and local businesses.