This Monday, the Taubman Center for Public Policy held its annual Noah Krieger ’93 Lecture, in which former Senator Olympia Snowe spoke on “Bridging the Divide.” Senator Olympia Snowe is best known for her work as a moderate Republican from Maine who served on, first, the U.S. House of Representatives and, later, the U.S. Senate. Her tenure was characterized by bipartisan aisle crossing, as famously seen during the trials regarding President Clinton’s impeachment.
Though she could’ve easily won reelection in 2012, Snowe retired from office due to her frustration with the lack of cooperation and bipartisanship in the Senate and Washington as a whole. She felt then, as she does now, that in order to change the climate of Congress, the fight for partisanship must be taken to the outside world. “Politics is too important to be left to politicians.”
Her lecture focused on this premise, elaborating on her current views of the state of Congress and its hyper-partisanship, citing reasons for its prominence, and offering solutions. So, without further ado, here are seven things I learned at Senator Snowe’s lecture:
#1 Olympia is one of a kind. At age 31, she became the youngest female Republican to ever be elected to the House of Representatives. She also is the only woman to ever be elected to both houses of her state’s legislature and U.S. Congress. In 2006, she was named one of America’s “10 Best Senators” by Time Magazine, the only female to be named such. Pretty badass.
#2 Congress was not always this bad. Throughout her lecture, Senator Snowe cited some surprising historical data that really put things in perspective. For example, the infamous “Do Nothing Congress,” as coined by President Truman, was criticized for its lack of production when it was in session from January of 1947 to January of 1949. That Congress passed 906 bills; our most recent Congress, in comparison, passed only 283. Why is this the case, you might ask?
#3 Congress hardly works at all. Congress is only in session about two days a week, or nine days a month. This seems to be very lazy in retrospect, with Senator Snowe saying they used to work five days a week. This Congress works the fewest days, and gets the fewest bills passed. Snowe indicated that this is one of the many problems with Congress; because they are never there, the Congressmen never get to know each other and have no desire to work together. As she put it, “the only predictabilities in Congress are recesses.”
#4 Snowe wants the people to demand accountability. Not only during elections, but in real time. The media, she offers, should be used not to fan the flames of partisanship (its current function), but to promote cooperation. The diminishing center has had a huge effect on the productivity of Congress; centrist and moderate politicians are usually the ones who get things done. Nate Silver, a political statistician whom Snowe cited, predicts that only 35 house seats remain “swing seats,” showing that not both politicians and voters have become more polarized.
Congress is not the only branch that could use some reform; President Obama can help by holding regular bipartisan leadership meetings, an initiative taken by former presidents. Those who oppose this change must act before it becomes permanent in the culture of American politics. One way Senator Snowe is demanding accountability is through Olympia’s List. This website highlights politicians up for election who would be willing to cross party lines in order to solve the major problems of today.
#5 Marion Orr is hilarious when it comes to organizing Q&As. “Two questions at a time.” “No, don’t answer yet.” “Did we get to your question?” Gotta love it.
#6 Social issues are the one place compromise may not work. Though Snowe danced around the question on social policy (simply offering that cooperation on these issues would be “difficult”), it was quite clear that she did not see much hope. She even mentioned that if the Republican party were to gain Congress back, she would advise them against an agenda too focused on social issues, which can be “divisive.” However, even she agreed that arguing over issues as basic as Planned Parenthood and domestic violence made her feel like they had traveled back to the 1950’s. The takeaway was that Congress should be able to find a middle ground on other domestic issues, such as campaign finance reform. A staggering 71% of ads in the last election season were attack ads, a problem Snowe feels is quite fixable.
#7 Redistricting and opening up primaries could be solutions. These were the two solutions offered by Snowe that I found most compelling. Redistricting offers a means by which gerrymandering can be reduced and eliminated, generating more competition during elections for specific seats. Opening up primaries would allow for independents to vote, potentially giving those candidates (who would presumably be more willing to cross the aisle) a fighting chance. These ideas, as opposed to some of Snowe’s other points, had a more transformative edge. As a member of a younger generation, it raised this question: should we simply be seeking to restore the old bipartisanship of Congress, or should we be trying to change not only the way our government is organized, but, more radically, the way we as constituents think about government and the function of the two-party system?