Former Senator Olympia Snowe, a moderate Republican from Maine, stunned many political observers in 2012 by announcing that she would not seek reelection for a fourth term in the Senate. Her reasoning for doing so proved to be a sad indictment of the state of dysfunction in Congress: She felt she could better solve the body’s issues of polarization and hyper-partisanship from the outside.
The former senator, known for being an advocate for compromise, came to campus Thursday to give a lecture entitled, “What’s Gone Wrong in Washington, and Why It Doesn’t Have to be this Way” as part of the Ford School’s Citi Foundation lecture series.
Snowe spoke to the audience in Rackham Auditorium about how the federal government and Congress have gone off-track, what has contributed to the undermining of the political process and possible solutions to these problems. Above all else, Snowe emphasized that the spirit of bipartisanship would be the key to solving the nation’s myriad issues.
“Our (political) system should be a marketplace of ideas predicated on consensus building, not a battle of ideology,” she said.
Snowe lamented Congress’s many “self-engineered and manufactured crises.” The downgrading of the country’s credit rating in 2011, she argued, was in part caused by legislative inaction on the debt and entitlement spending; this past January, as a result of earlier failed negotiations, it took Congress right up to the 11th hour to finally resolve the fiscal cliff issue, that economists warned would have had serious consequences on the economy as a whole.
The habit of “legislating up to deferral and brinkmanship,” as Snowe described it, still persists, as Congress must deal with budget issues to avert a government shutdown before Sept. 30 and decide whether or not to raise the debt ceiling by mid-October.
Compounding this concern was Snowe’s claim that there’s “very little institutional memory” of how the legislative process worked within both chambers. According to Snowe, more than half of the members of both the Senate and House have fewer than 6 years of experience, making them only familiar with the current climate of dysfunction and inaction.
Snowe acknowledged that part of the reason for the rise in partisanship and polarization had to do with shifting demographics among the electorate, referencing pollster Nate Silver’s statistical estimate that the number of swing districts in the House shrank from 103 in 1992 to just 35 in 2012. Because of this, “most elections are predetermined before they even occur,” creating “little political incentive to reach across the aisle.”
In addition to issues within Congress, Snowe also cited the Obama administration’s failure to communicate on a consistent basis with congressional leaders as a cause of dysfunction. She referenced how former President Ronald Reagan and former House Speaker Tip O’Neill would meet every week, and despite their vast ideological differences, understood what they had to overcome for the good of the country.
Since leaving office, Snowe has embarked on a speaking tour to promote her book, “Fighting for Common Ground,” and has established Olympia’s List, a political action committee that supports congressional candidates in both parties who value bipartisanship and consensus.
College campuses have been a popular destination on Snowe’s tour because of her desire to communicate to young people about the importance of public service and what the mission of public service is all about: to solve problems and achieve practical results.
“I don’t want (students) to be turned off by this (political) climate and I don’t want them to take their cues from this climate,” Snowe said in an interview before the event. “I’d rather change it.”
Prior to delivering her lecture, Snowe spent much of her day meeting with students. She had a question-and-answer session with Prof. John Schwarz’s public-policy class, had lunch with another group of Public Policy students, and held a question and answer session with Women and Gender in Public Policy, a student organization within the Ford School.
Public Policy graduate student Erin Sullivan, a member of WGPP, said Snowe was very candid in talking about her experience in the Senate.
“She wanted the full experience, and she gave plenty of students the opportunity to engage with her, which is what we should be striving for,” Sullivan said.
Crucial to changing the culture of dysfunction, according to Snowe, is involving people — especially students — in the political process.
“We’re a representative government; we get the government we demand,” Snowe said before the event. “If we value bipartisanship, we will get it.”