Maine’s ex-senator Olympia Snowe recounts road to Capitol Hill and beyond at Lesley University's Boston Speakers Series
Thursday, January 22, 2015
Snowe, a moderate Republican from Maine, peppered the audience at Symphony Hall on Jan. 21 with abundant humor and a few anecdotes from the halls of power as the fourth speaker of this season of Lesley University’s Boston Speakers Series.
“I always considered myself a minority within a minority within a minority,” Snowe quipped, pointing out her status as a female, Greek-American, moderate member of Congress. She enjoyed most of her tenure, first as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from 1979 to 1995, and then as U.S. senator, before declining to run again in 2012, when hyper-partisanship convinced her Congress could best be reformed from the outside.
While initially she might have been offended when an especially conservative colleague called her a dinosaur for her willingness to work with Democrats, bucking the growing culture of Capitol Hill, she realized that, indeed, “the political center was targeted for extinction.”
As a result of the House and Senate members’ inability to find common ground, she said, Congress is polling below root canal in public esteem as political leaders engage in brinksmanship, petty squabbling and a casual commitment to doing the people’s business.
“How about a five-day work week?” she said to percussive applause, explaining that Congress today shows up for “bed-check” votes around 5 p.m. on Mondays and, “By Thursday, everybody is smelling jet fumes.”
In contemporary politics, she added, “the campaigning never stops and the legislating never begins.” By way of comparison, the 1947 House and Senate — which President Harry Truman dubbed the “Do-Nothing Congress,” passed 906 bills, whereas the most recent Congress couldn’t quite muster 300.
And it’s no wonder. As her time in Congress was winding down, she saw that fellow lawmakers didn’t even grasp the fundamentals of Senate rules, the role of committees and the importance of legislative amendments, which she said, “build bridges.” She said she often thought she needed to take to the floor of the Senate and channel “Schoolhouse Rock” to remind colleagues how laws are made.
And when members did display conversance with the intricacies of the legislative process, they wielded the rules as weapons against the opposition party, stanching any hope of progress and exhibiting a willful disregard of the public good. As her time in Congress was winding down, many votes were little more than sops to the most extreme wing of one of the major political parties, or the special-interest groups donating to members’ campaigns. When she balked at supporting legislation that seemed either pointless or even harmful, she was often reminded that it was a “vote for the base.”
Eventually, she realized, “Today, it’s all about that base,” she said, drawing laughs for her savvy allusion to the hit pop song by Meghan Trainor.
What’s more, Congress is marked by rancor that, while not as extreme as the 18th- and 19th-century duels, brawls and canings in the Senate chamber, nevertheless represents what Snowe called “the scorched-earth approach to legislating.”
Things weren’t always this way, however. Snowe remembers the Senate, particularly, as a “solutions-driven powerhouse,” where leaders like former Kansas Republican Sen. Bob Dole would compel Republicans and Democrats to hunker down in his conference room and emerge with compromises.
That was a time of a more collegial Congress, where members from opposite parties took the time to familiarize themselves with one another as human beings, not simply exemplars of a worldview they disagree with. Snowe talked about attending a fundraiser for a fellow congressional “class member,” the late Geraldine Ferraro — a New York Democrat who would eventually become the first female vice presidential candidate, as the running mate of liberal Minnesota Sen. Walter Mondale in 1984. Today, however, Congress can’t even throw a bipartisan farewell dinner for legislators retiring after a lengthy term of service.
Though she displayed a knack for politics soon after graduating college, Snowe said she didn’t set out to become a public official for nearly 40 years. Orphaned before she was 10 years old, she grew up independent and resilient, having been sent from her native Maine to New York for elementary school. She would often ride the train alone between the Pine Tree and Empire states, occasionally napping on the hard benches of Grand Central Station. (“I wouldn’t recommend that,” she deadpanned.)
Snowe later returned to Maine for high school and college, graduating the University of Maine at Orono with a degree in political science.
She worked for then-Congressman William Cohen, another moderate Republican who later became senator then Secretary of Defense. She married state legislator Peter Snowe and ran successfully to serve the remainder of his Maine House seat when he was killed in a car crash in 1973. She continued to serve in the Maine House, and later the Senate, before embarking on her congressional career. She is the first woman to have served in both houses of a state legislature and both houses of Congress.
Today, however, she is a fellow in the nonprofit Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington-based think tank dedicated to advancing bipartisanship as a means of promoting effective government. The organization also advocates bipartisan policy positions on health, the environment, national security and other issues.
When asked which “suspected presidential candidates” seem most likely to be able to support a bipartisan approach to problem-solving, she pointed to Democratic senatorial colleague and past Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, as well as Republican former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
Earlier in the evening, in praising the “physical and academic expansion” of series sponsor Lesley University, accomplished through the spirit of collaboration, she suggested President Joseph Moore “could go to Washington and conduct a few tutorials” for Congress.
Something needs to be done to get representatives and senators working together and working for the people who elect them, she asserted, pointing to the “widening gulf between those who would govern and those who are being governed.”
While she doubted the compulsory voting model revealed by a lecturer earlier in the Boston Speakers Series, former Australia Prime Minister Julia Gillard, would work in the United States, she said the political process itself needs to be reformed to encourage greater participation. Online voter registration, a single national primary day and voting on Saturdays are possible remedies, she said.
And the country needs a remedy soon.
“We cannot afford another two years of a political wasteland,” she said. “Silence is not golden: The forces of division are not silent.”
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