Snowe Plans to Fix Washington from the Outside In
Policy + Politics

Snowe Plans to Fix Washington from the Outside In

REUTERS/Jessica Rinaldi

When Olympia J. Snowe told Mitch McConnell in February 2012 that she was going to retire from the Senate, the first words out of the Republican Minority Leader’s mouth were, “Goodness gracious.”

McConnell no doubt instantly calculated that if the moderate Republican Snowe bowed out, her Maine Senate seat likely would fall into Democratic hands – which it did.

McConnell told Snowe that if she ran for another term, she would be at the “peak of her power” and could help build bipartisan support for legislation. That was an interesting argument from one of the most partisan lawmakers who had dedicated his efforts to denying President Obama a second term. But Snowe, a prominent and beloved moderate Republican on Capitol Hill, had made up her mind to leave.

After all the frustration and embarrassment she felt during the year-long political “debacle” over raising the debt ceiling in 2011 – a troubling drama that showed Republican and Democratic lawmakers and the president at their worst – Snowe concluded she’d had enough and could accomplish more outside of office, she says in a new book.

"We not only failed to resolve real long-term issues of deficits and the national debt, but demonstrated our endemic dysfunction by passing on responsibility for a longer-lasting agreement, first to a so-called super committee, and then to a lame-duck session of Congress, where the 'fiscal cliff' agreement, itself a temporary Band-Aid, was passed," Snowe says in Fighting for Common Ground: How We Can Fix the Stalemate in Congress.

Even after Congress and the White House narrowly avoided a first-ever default by the Treasury by striking a last-minute deal to raise the debt ceiling on July 31, 2011, Snowe wrote, “I was in a state of disbelief at the cavalier attitude that prevailed on Capitol Hill following the vote.”

“We had not forged a solution that would foster confidence with the financial markets and the American people,” she wrote. “And incredibly, as soon as the debt ceiling was raised, it was as though the smell of jet fumes permeated the Capitol, beckoning senators and House members to Reagan National Airport for flights home for the month-long August recess.”

Snowe said she agonized over her decision to retire and conferred privately with her husband, John “Jock” McKernan (a former two-term Maine governor), plus labor secretary Lynn Martin and a few others in advance of her announcement at the end of February, 2012. “I knew I was giving up a lot, given how far I had come,” she recalled. “But given the standards I had set for myself, from term to term, election to election, I just knew the political dynamic  wasn’t going to change enough that it would produce the kind of solutions” that her constituents deserved and wanted.

As for McConnell’s argument that she could lead the way in brokering bipartisan solutions if she stayed in the Senate, Snowe said she regrettably concluded “those days were behind us, not ahead of us.”

Since leaving the Senate in January, rather than taking it easy, she finished her new autobiography, delivered a series of speeches sounding the alarm about hyper-partisanship in Washington, and working as a senior fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington think tank focused on achieving principled solutions through rigorous analysis. Snowe is also co-chair of Commission for Political Reform, which is conducting seminars around the country.

Last week, she helped launch the Common Ground Project, a grass roots organization to get ordinary citizens involved in political reform in Washington and across the country. “We want to give people a channel to be a catalyst for change in real time,” she explained in an interview last week. The goal is to use social media and on-line technology inform Americans about what is or isn’t happening in Congress, what can be done to break the political stalemate “and to be a counterweight to the extremes that continue to perpetuate the status quo of polarization and partisanship.”

For years, it was an article of faith that if there was an important bipartisan deal to be struck on Capitol Hill, Snowe would be in the mix. Throughout struggles to find common ground on issues ranging from campaign finance reform and health care to economic stimulus and intelligence, Snowe, with her flat New England accent, invariably was a major player.

So her decision to retire after more than three decades in the House and Senate out of sheer frustration and disgust with the relentless, grinding partisanship on Capitol Hill was another sobering reminder that Congress has been rendered a political no-man’s land where compromise between the two armed camps is a rare exception.

Snowe, 66, overcame overwhelming personal tragedy – including the deaths of her parents when she was a young girl and the death of her first husband, Peter Snowe, in a car accident in 1973 – to carve out a career in Maine politics and on Capitol Hill.

“What helped me was deciding what I could do to make a positive as opposed to a negative [impact] because I couldn’t turn it around, I couldn’t change the equation,” she said. “When you feel like you’re on the ground, you have to pick yourself up, dust yourself off and figure out, now what are you going to do.”
She said she had little doubt she could have won a fourth term in the Senate if she wanted, despite Tea Party carping about her moderate voting record and strong bipartisan instincts.

“However, what I have had to consider is how productive an additional term would be,” she said at the time of her announcement. “Unfortunately, I do not realistically expect the partisanship of recent years in the Senate to change over the short term.”

Indeed, the days of moderate Republicans and conservative Democrats with a propensity for compromise are sadly marked. The retirement at the end of last year of Democratic senators Kent Conrad of North Dakota and Ben Nelson of Nebraska, independent Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut and Snowe continued a mass exit of lawmakers who once occupied the political middle ground on Capitol Hill.

Snowe’s departure played to the advantage of the Democrats. Former Maine governor Angus King, an independent, won her seat last November and subsequently decided to caucus with the Democrats. King’s election helped the Democrats retain control of the Senate.

Snowe wrote glowingly that  in the late 1990s, when Democrat Tom Daschle and Republican Trent Lott were alternating as Senate majority leader and minority leader, depending on which party won the election, they spoke to each other constantly, even installing a direct phone line in their offices so that they could discuss any issue. Today, she says, the rapport between Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Minority Leader McConnell is cool at best. In fact, McConnell preferred to deal directly with Vice President Biden over Reid in ironing out the budget and debt ceiling disputes.

Snowe says recent polls show that voters want their legislators to compromise, but that with the parties’ deep divisions, and without receptivity to consensus building, “it is virtually impossible to get anything done in Congress. And with the Obama administration awash in political scandals and the two parties miles apart on issues ranging from immigration reform to overhauling ever costlier entitlement programs, the progress for compromise seems even more elusive.

“They have to get to the truth,” she said, “and it’s a question of how they manage these investigations – both on the part of the president and the administration and Congress. It has to be not about the politics, but about the truth.” Snowe offers a handful of prescriptions for improving the political climate and overcoming Congress’s dysfunctional behavior. One that she says is getting a lot of attention from average Americans is increasing the amount of time members of Congress actually spend in Washington by instituting five-day workweeks at least three weeks a month, instead of the abbreviated Tuesday-to-Thursday legislative schedule now followed. The other week would be reserved for lawmakers to spend time in their states or districts.

“The point is, you’ve got to spend some time in Washington to fix problems,” she says. “You can’t solve problems if you’re not around. That’s a real issue.”