Two truths are all too often overshadowed in today’s political discourse: Public service is a most honorable pursuit, and so is bipartisanship.
I have been immeasurably honored to serve the people of Maine for nearly 40 years in public office and for the past 17 years in the U.S. Senate. It was incredibly difficult to decide that I would not seek a fourth term in the Senate.
Some people were surprised by my conclusion, yet I have spoken on the floor of the Senate for years about the dysfunction and political polarization in the institution. Simply put, the Senate is not living up to what the Founding Fathers envisioned.
During the Federal Convention of 1787, James Madison wrote in his Notes of Debates that “the use of the Senate is to consist in its proceedings with more coolness, with more system, and with more wisdom, than the popular branch.” Indeed, the Founding Fathers intended the Senate to serve as an institutional check that ensures all voices are heard and considered, because while our constitutional democracy is premised on majority rule, it is also grounded in a commitment to minority rights.
Yet more than 200 years later, the greatest deliberative body in human history is not living up to its billing. The Senate of today routinely jettisons regular order, as evidenced by the body’s failure to pass a budget for more than 1,000 days; serially legislates by political brinkmanship, as demonstrated by the debt-ceiling debacle of August that should have been addressed the previous January; and habitually eschews full debate and an open amendment process in favor of competing, up-or-down, take-it-or-leave-it proposals. We witnessed this again in December with votes on two separate proposals for a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution.
As Ronald Brownstein recently observed in National Journal, Congress is becoming more like a parliamentary system — where everyone simply votes with their party and those in charge employ every possible tactic to block the other side.
But that is not what America is all about, and it’s not what the Founders intended. In fact, the Senate’s requirement of a supermajority to pass significant legislation encourages its members to work in a bipartisan fashion.
One difficulty in making the Senate work the way it was intended is that America’s electorate is increasingly divided into red and blue states, with lawmakers representing just one color or the other. Before the 1994 election, 34 senators came from states that voted for a presidential nominee of the opposing party. That number has dropped to just 25 senators in 2012. The result is that there is no practical incentive for 75 percent of the senators to work across party lines.
The great challenge is to create a system that gives our elected officials reasons to look past their differences and find common ground if their initial party positions fail to garner sufficient support. In a politically diverse nation, only by finding that common ground can we achieve results for the common good. That is not happening today and, frankly, I do not see it happening in the near future.
For change to occur, our leaders must understand that there is not only strength in compromise, courage in conciliation and honor in consensus-building, but also a political reward for following these tenets. That reward will be real only if the people demonstrate their desire for politicians to come together after the planks in their respective party platforms do not prevail.
I certainly don’t have all the answers, and reversing the corrosive trend of winner-take-all politics will take time. But as I enter a new chapter in my life, I see a critical need to engender public support for the political center, for our democracy to flourish and to find solutions that unite rather than divide us.
I do not believe that, in the near term, the Senate can correct itself from within. It is by nature a political entity and, therefore, there must be a benefit to working across the aisle.
But whenever Americans have set our minds to tackling enormous problems, we have met with tremendous success. And I am convinced 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.
Olympia J. Snowe is Maine’s senior senator.