This is the first year in more than four decades that I haven’t been in the legislative branch of government. During that span, I’ve witnessed government’s greatest potential as well as its calamitous capacity for dysfunction. Unfortunately, the latter is now drastically outweighing the former.
When I got my start, in the Maine House of Representatives in 1973, I found that politics and public life were positive and constructive endeavors. Once the elections were over, we put campaigns and party labels behind us to enact laws that genuinely improved the lives of the citizens of our state. I felt then, as I do now, that the role of a public servant was to solve problems.
That notion sounds almost irretrievably quaint in our present, corrosive political environment.
In making the incredibly difficult decision last year to leave the U.S. Senate after three terms, I had arrived at a regrettable reality: Our excessive political polarization would not diminish in the short term. Instead, I decided it would be most effective to take my fight for bipartisanship outside the institution of government.
To be clear, I’m not suggesting there was a “golden era” of bipartisanship. There were always vigorous debates and deep political divisions. Yet we weren’t consumed by what separated us. There was instead an abiding sense that reconciliation was achievable because our ultimate allegiance was to the best interests of the country.
Indeed, during my 34 years in Congress, I experienced firsthand what can be accomplished when individuals from various political backgrounds are determined to solve problems.
It was a cross-aisle alliance between Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia and me that produced the so-called E-Rate program in 1996, ensuring every library and classroom in America would be wired to the revolutionary resources of the Internet. It’s been ranked fourth in a list of innovations and initiatives that helped shape education technology over the past generation.
Or during the tax debates we had in Congress in 2001, Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas and I, as members of the Finance Committee, joined together to increase the child tax credit and make it refundable, helping an additional 37 million American families and 55 million children nationwide.
Can you imagine these kinds of collaborative initiatives today?
Instead, Congress has arrived at a moment when policy-making has been virtually abandoned. It has devolved into a series of “gotcha” votes for political leverage. Rather than legislating, it’s all about “messaging” amendments, which aren’t designed to solve a problem but to create the basis for appeals to each party’s political base and 30-second soundbites for the next election.
As a consequence, Congress lurches from one self-inflicted crisis to another, and that is no way to govern. This abdication of leadership has led us directly to a government shutdown and a potential default on our country’s financial obligations that profoundly threaten our economy precisely as we struggle to emerge from the worst post-recession recovery in our history.
Still, there is hope. Ultimately, we get the government we demand.
What is required is a political reward at the ballot box for those politicians who work toward common ground, and a penalty for those who do not. That’s my message now. And to further it, I’ve established Olympia’s List, a rallying point for those interested in identifying and supporting candidates who are willing to reach across the political aisle and follow the principles of consensus-building. And at the Bipartisan Policy Center, where I am a senior fellow, we are encouraging Americans to join a new effort called Citizens for Political Reform to demand bipartisanship.
There are already plenty of incentives for incendiary rhetoric and thwarting action. We can alter those incentives. What is necessary now is a counterweight to the extremism, a groundswell of recognition that there is strength in compromise, courage in conciliation and honor in consensus-building that will leave a legacy of responsible stewardship for the generations to come.
That is the essence of my new line of work, and I’ll be fighting tooth and nail to make it happen so that Congress can, in fact, govern once again.
Olympia Snowe represented Maine in Washington from 1979 to 2013.