This week Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, announced she will not seek re-election. The surprise decision from the three-term senator brings to an end nearly 34 years of service in Congress (she served for 16 years in the House of Representatives). Not only does her decision put into jeopardy what was considered a safe seat for Republicans, it threatens Republican hopes of regaining the Senate.
In an interview about her decision with MSNBC's Andrea Mitchell, Snowe expressed that the Senate is "not working out issues anymore."
"You can never solve a problem without talking to people with whom you disagree," said Snowe. "And the United States Senate is predicated and based on the essence of consensus building. That was certainly the vision of our Founding Fathers. And if we abandon that approach, then we do it at the expense of the country and the issues we need to address to put us back on track."
Although her seat seemed safe, as a moderate Republican, Snowe was becoming a rare and endangered species in the 21st-century Senate. Indeed, a centrist "anything" seems endangered in today's polarized Senate. Consider, for example, how the conservative Democrat Sen. Ben Nelson, Neb., and the independent Sen. Joe Lieberman, Conn., have also chosen to bow out of the Senate at the end of this term. And one can't help but note how many senators who were previously heralded for working across the aisle have undergone extreme makeovers to avoid being "Bennettized."
Political centrism is not, in-and-of-itself, a virtue. The erosion of the political center in Congress, however, is a serious concern for taking care of the most basic legislative tasks and Snowe's diagnosis of senatorial dysfunction is spot on.
The Senate has not passed a budget in more than 1,000 days. The once rarely invoked filibuster has become the rule rather than the exception. Open debate and amendment have been replaced with up-or-down votes. And with a huge backlog of judicial and administrative vacancies, senators can't even seem to agree on what rules govern the appointments process.
With overlapping committee and subcommittee assignments crammed into an abbreviated week, no senator can hope to attend all committee meetings. Huge professional staffs try to tether the centrifugal demands of legislation, constituent service and media attention while senators also juggle the incessant demands of fundraising.
There has been a long slow slide from a Senate that was rewarded for cultivating national policy expertise and consensus in deliberative committees to the fractious institution of today. Political scientist Nelson Polsby described the change from an "encapsulated men's club" to "a publicity machine operated for the purpose of linking senators with national interest groups and factions." And UCLA professor Barbara Sinclair has shown how those national interest groups reward grandstanding, obstruction and contention over productive compromise.
Of course the hierarchical men's club of the past had its own problems. But the inability of today's Senate to make basic decisions through standard legislative processes is contributing to our fiscal and trust deficits.
In explaining her decision to step down, Snowe wrote in the Washington Post this week that the Senate cannot correct itself from within. "It is by nature a political entity and, therefore, there must be a benefit to working across the aisle."
Nonetheless, Snowe expressed hope that external influence could lead to improvement. "I am convinced," wrote Snowe, "that, if the people of our nation raise their collective voices, we can effect a renewal of the art of legislating — and restore the luster of a Senate that still has the potential of achieving monumental solutions to our nation's most urgent challenges. I look forward to helping the country raise those voices to support the Senate returning to its deserved status and stature — but from outside the institution."
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In the coming weeks and months, Utahns have an opportunity to be a part of the long-term political solution for Congress's dysfunctions. If upcoming neighborhood caucus meetings and party conventions give into the animal spirits of faction and contention, we fear that over time our representation will amplify such qualities in office. But if these grass-roots processes emphasize and exemplify statesmanlike problem-solving and mutual respect over grandstanding and contention, then, it is our belief that those chosen through such processes will reflect and amplify those virtues in public office. We urge all who are concerned about the dysfunctions of government to get involved and lend support to civility and statesmanship, beginning right in our own neighborhoods.