Olympia Snowe’s Fight for Change

Months after her much-publicized departure from politics, former U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe joins us on Chicago Tonight at 7:00 pm to discuss her new book, Fighting for Common Ground. In it, she argues that elected officials have to relearn one of the oldest rules of democracy: “compromise,” she writes, “is not a dirty word.”

The following are highlights from our conversation with Snowe, who’s now working as a senior fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center:

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On her identity as a Republican:

“The party’s changed. I haven’t. I haven’t left the party. I think the party left me. I held true to those values. Although sometimes, I say I felt  like a cast member on Survivor – presented with a lot of obstacles and you get a feeling you’re no longer wanted.”

On the possibility of Hillary Clinton 2016:

“I think that Hillary should run if she decides to. She’s already set a standard. I think she’s broken those barriers and any questions about the ability of a woman to run, to serve as president of the United States. So, obviously, that’s a decision she’ll have to make. But I certainly am sure it’ll be welcomed by so many women across this country.”

On whether she’d consider endorsing Hillary Clinton:

“Too early to tell. Obviously, I’m still a Republican. But we’ll look at it.”

On women in Congress:

“Women by nature are collaborative. But they’re also results oriented… We’re doers, and made sure we just drove those trains on the issues that mattered to women.”

On the urgent need for bipartisan compromise:

“There’s no way to get anything done, either in the House or the United States Senate, if you’re not working together. I mean, I do not know how you accomplish anything unless you work with the other side and you don’t insist on getting 100 percent of what you want. There’s no sphere in life where you get 100 percent of what you want.”

Read an excerpt from Snowe's book:


     When I announced I would not run for reelection to the Senate in February 2012, many people asked me the same question: Was I relieved? The implication was that I was weary of the increasing bickering of recent Congresses and that I was worn down by it.

Nothing could be further from the truth. I’ve never backed down from a fight and I relish a good debate.

Some of these same well-wishers went on to express the hope that I would finally be able to relax.

No chance.

I have no intention of retiring. I love to work as much as ever.

But the Senate, as well as the 112th Congress, whose term ended in January 2013, was no longer a legislative body where the key issues facing the country could be resolved. I decided not to seek reelection only when I came to the sad conclusion that I could more effectively serve my country from outside the Senate than from within.

What motivated me to dedicate myself to public service for nearly two-thirds of my life was the chance to produce results for those people who entrusted me to be their voice and their champion. I found it exceedingly frustrating that an atmosphere of polarization and my-way-or-the-highway ideologies had become pervasive in our governing institutions, compromising our ability to solve problems at what was a time of monumental challenge for our nation.

The Senate as a whole simply was not doing the job granted to it under the Constitution. The Founding Fathers gave individual senators considerable power and influence, yet we were unable to offer solutions to problems on the floor of the Senate because we were prevented from proposing amendments. Few bills even reached the floor, and when they did, debate was frequently stifled or curtailed by overuse of the filibuster and other procedural gymnastics. Senate committees traditionally prepare bills that can and should be thoroughly talked through in debate, but in recent years that work has been bypassed. All too frequently, a bill was drafted behind closed doors and reported to the floor, then a quick up-and-down vote was forced on the entire proposal.

It was a stunning measure of our dysfunction that we were unable to pass a federal budget. After 2009, the last year in which a budget became law, the legislative branch failed year after year to fulfill one of its most basic functions. And year after year, Congress could only enact temporary provisions to keep the country running, let alone undertake any of the work essential to the nation’s long-term economic health like regulatory reform, changes to the creaking tax code, and reducing our crippling deficits and debt. How could we ever hope to balance a budget if we were never even able to pass one?

At the same time, our two parties had become more extreme and more ideologically driven. Fair-minded legislators were reluctant to reach out across the aisle lest they bring on an intra-party challenge like the ones faced by Senator Bob Bennett in Utah, Senator Lisa Murkowski in Alaska, and Congressman Mike Castle in Delaware when he ran for the Senate.

Outstanding colleagues have had their distinguished careers derailed by a tightly organized subgroup within the main Republican Party that is more interested in taking down individuals with whom they don’t agree than in electing representatives who will find bipartisan legislative solutions to America’s problems.

Democrats were not immune to the new political reality. In 2010 in Arkansas, unions spent an estimated $10 million trying to defeat Senator Blanche Lincoln. She narrowly survived a primary run-off with Lieutenant Governor Bill Halter, but was defeated in the general election. I served with Blanche on the Senate Finance Committee and saw firsthand her tenacious commitment to her state.

Democrats even turned on a former vice presidential nominee when in 2006, Joe Lieberman lost a primary in Connecticut to a more liberal candidate, Ned Lamont, only to run and win as an independent. Joe had built a distinguished record on national security, but was viewed as too conservative and too close to then-President Bush. These were both instances of outstanding public servants being targeted by their own party.

As the same take-it-or-leave-it divisions have been echoed in the media, more and more constituents told me they simply no longer watched the news. I understand why so many Americans are fed up with government. The 112th Congress was almost universally derided as the worst ever. It was the most polarized body since the end of Reconstruction, according to one study, and I grew embarrassed by its partisan bickering, inactivity, and refusal to address the vital challenges facing America. Our job approval ratings were deservedly terrible—in some surveys the percentage of Americans who approved of the Congress’s performance plummeted into historically low single digits.

When someone mentioned to Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) in 2011 that Congress was at a 13 percent approval rating, he replied, “I want to know who those 13 percent are.” Senator Michael Bennet (D-CO) published a chart that showed that our popularity was on a par with that of Hugo Chavez and significantly less than perennial favorites like bankers, lawyers, and the Internal Revenue Service.

I’m not a person who tends to rhapsodize about the past and how things used to be better, but I know enough Senate history to understand that the 112th was not typical. Earlier in my own career, and throughout its history, the Senate has transcended its divisions, risen to the occasion as an institution, and earned its status as the “world’s greatest deliberative body,” a description that in recent times is often tinged with sarcasm.

One triumph was the Senate’s rebuttal of President Franklin Roosevelt’s attempt to pack the Supreme Court with sympathetic justices in 1937. FDR took it for granted that the loyal Senate, controlled by his vice president, John Garner, would rubber-stamp his legislation that was designed to thwart any Supreme Court challenge to New Deal legislation. Instead, individual senators did what the Constitution mandated them to do and stood up to the President, and the deliberative body did what it was allowed to do when it conducted unlimited debate, both in Judiciary Committee hearings and on the floor of the Senate. Several senators made impassioned speeches in favor of judicial independence, including Josiah Bailey of North Carolina, whose powerful oratory changed other senators’ minds. Seduced by his own overwhelming popularity, Roosevelt overplayed his hand and was ultimately thwarted by a bipartisan coalition of Republicans and conservative Democrats.

Historian Robert Caro describes this episode in Master of the Senate, part three of his indispensable biography of Lyndon Johnson. In 2005, Harry Reid drew the passage to my attention when he sent me a photocopy of it, along with a handwritten note saying that it reminded him of me. It is the kind of friendly and collegial gesture that senators often make toward each other.

Harry’s note coincided with a systematic Democratic filibuster of President George W. Bush’s judicial nominees, which was a corrosive force in the Senate. The Republican Majority Leader sought to break the logjam by exercising the so-called nuclear option, by which a “cloture” motion to end a filibuster could be passed by a simple majority rather than a sixty-vote threshold.

A cloture motion ends debate at once and moves the issue straight to a vote. Making this process easier was perceived by many, myself included, to be a severe diminution of the rights of the minority. Fourteen like-minded legislators, seven Republicans and seven Democrats—we were known as the “Gang of 14”—came together in a bipartisan spirit to forestall the nuclear option by agreeing we would support a filibuster of judicial nominees under “extraordinary circumstances.” The agreement was the very manifestation of consensus-building and the power of trust. It is not always the rules that require changing but rather how we use them.

When I departed the Senate in 2013, its landscape not only was very different from what it was in 1937, but had even changed substantially from 2005. More recently, legislative outcomes are often preordained, and positions have usually solidified along party lines before a bill even reaches the Senate floor. Today, people rarely rush from Senate offices and cloakrooms to the floor and the galleries to hear a consequential speech. We might take solace from the fact that it wasn’t always like this in Congress, nor does it have to be this way in the future. I came to Washington in 1979 determined to make an impact (when I became a member of the House that year, I joined a cross-party women’s caucus whose work yielded real practical results), and possessed of the same spirit, I intend to continue this effort now on another stage.

The bottom line is that Congress retains the same potential in 2013 as at any time in its history. But it requires hard work to realize that potential, and legislators have to grapple with the major questions by working with the President, with the other side, and with members of their own party with whom they might disagree. In recent years, the two parties have stood in monolithic opposition; senators collaborate less; they hold separate conferences and caucuses and they meet less often in social settings than in the past.

The Senate’s path out of dysfunction leads through increased bipartisanship and cross-party consensus-building. With the same spirit as before, only now working outside Congress, I’ll maintain my fight for these improvements and lend my voice and experience as a consensus-builder and act as a catalyst for change. It is imperative we make certain there is a real political benefit and reward to be gained for bipartisanship so we can break what has become the equivalent of the parliamentary gridlock in Congress.

In January 2013, I concluded forty years of service in public office, in the Maine House and Senate and in the United States House and Senate. I know what we have to do to fix Washington, beginning with a call to action to empower the millions of Americans who believe that bipartisanship offers the best way forward at this tipping point for America. Through the power of social media we must mobilize from the grassroots upward to send an unmistakable message to our lawmakers that there is popular support for seeking common ground rather than destructive divisiveness.

Polls in early 2013 revealed that voters wanted their legislators to compromise, but with the parties’ deep divisions, and without a receptivity to consensus-building, it is virtually impossible to get anything done in Congress. Power resides with the people through the ballot box, and we must attract and support candidates of both parties who are committed to pragmatic problem-solving.

In order to help ensure that candidates better reflect the ideological pragmatism of most Americans, we should encourage more states to follow the practice of open primaries. Campaign finance reform, including rolling back Citizens United, is essential to leveling the electoral playing field, and eliminating so-called Leadership PACs would help to abate the perpetual fund-raising our lawmakers are engaged in, which is a major distraction from conducting legislative business. We will also increase the amount of time members of Congress spend in Washington by instituting five-day workweeks at least three weeks a month, instead of the abbreviated Tuesday-to-Thursday legislative schedule. The other week would be reserved for members of Congress to spend time in their states or districts.

I propose in this book a number of procedural and rules changes that would rightly focus Washington on the essence of public service: working for the people our government was formed to serve. One is to permanently mandate that if Congress fails to pass a budget or appropriations bills are not completed, its members don’t get paid—simple as that. We should curtail the ability of Senate leadership to either block or force through legislation without meaningful debate or amendments. The filibuster reforms that were adopted in 2013 were a step in the right direction but they were temporary and more must be done. At the same time we can act on the principles that have helped make America economically strong, which is one of the reasons why I believe a balanced budget amendment is an imperative.

As I said at my announcement that I would not seek reelection, by these and other means I will work from outside the Senate to make sure that the institution, and the government of which it is an integral part, do not continue to be crippled by the dysfunction I felt compelled to leave behind in 2013.

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