On the radio I recently heard Sen. Olympia Snowe, back in Maine, speaking out against cuts to Social Security. It sounded like our famously moderate senator watching out for her constituents. But something was not right: The senator’s support for this and other government spending cannot be squared with her recent efforts on Capitol Hill. Just this summer, during the height of the paralysis over the federal debt ceiling, Snowe was pushing for a change in the U.S. Constitution to drastically scale-back government.
On July 7, Snowe, along with Sen. Jim DeMint — a South Carolina Republican so extreme that he calls himself “Senator Tea Party” — used the pages of the Wall Street Journal to call for adoption of a so-called “Balanced Budget Amendment.” Snowe and DeMint were advocating for a vote to amend the Constitution before the United States pays its bills.
The Snowe-DeMint proposal has one key provision much like earlier versions of such ideas — with the same flaws. It requires a two-thirds vote in both houses of Congress to pass an unbalanced budget. Such a constitutional straight jacket is bad policy even if it is popular in some circles.
A properly functioning national government, in better budget times, should be able to run an occasional deficit as a way to pay for emergencies or to stave off an economic downturn. Taking this tool effectively off the table would make recessions more frequent, longer and more severe.
Snowe and DeMint, however, went further requiring the same two-thirds supermajorities to raise taxes. This makes plain that Snowe-DeMint is not about balanced budgets. This anti-tax poison pill is essentially a national TABOR proposal that Maine voters have repeatedly rejected here. It says to government: Balance the budget with one arm behind your back.
Snowe-DeMint also proposes an extremely tight spending cap. Their cap would require spending cuts greater than all other proposals including from self-proclaimed deficit hawks Speaker Boehner and Rep. Rand Paul.
Snowe-DeMint is so extreme that right wing American Enterprise Institute called it “too risky” and predicted that it “would be disastrous.” Republican colleague Sen. John McCain labeled the Snowe-DeMint plan “foolish.”
Snowe’s Wall Street Journal piece stated: “The only way to compel lawmakers to maintain their responsibility forever is a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution.” Sounds like the long-serving senator could be saying, “Stop me before I spend again.”
In fact, back here in Maine, Snowe was soon cheerleading government spending. As mentioned, Snowe renewed her support for Social Security — and I certainly agree with that. Then Snowe sternly rebuked the Postmaster General for proposing to close 34 post offices in Maine.
Snowe also criticized the Obama administration for proposing cuts in funds for the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). This is a vital program during Maine’s cold winters, but I have been working more on weatherizing Maine buildings so that government subsidized heat does not go straight outdoors.
Finally, Snowe assailed as “ill-informed and inexcusable” the closing of Brunswick-Topsham Commissary that offers discount goods to service members even though the Brunswick Naval base is now closed.
These efforts to derail federal spending cuts cannot be squared with Snowe’s “starve the beast” constitutional amendment. If Snowe’s contradictory approach of opposing revenues while encouraging spending passes for serious policy in Washington, it is no wonder that our national debt has risen from $800 billion to $15 trillion during Snowe’s 33 years there.
Watching Sen. Snowe cater to both extremes of our political landscape leads me to consider running for the seat. Consistency should be one hallmark of our public policy. For me, it is the interests of the ordinary working people of Maine that need consistent attention and support in the halls of the U.S. Senate. Every interest group cannot be fed.
Jon Hinck, a Democrat, represents Portland in the Maine House of Representatives and is the ranking minority member of the Legislature’s Committee on Energy, Utililties & Technology. Hinck recently announced that he is considering a candidacy for the United States Senate in 2012.