Former member of Congress tries to find common ground

Richard Harris

By A Contributor

This important book was written by Olympia Snowe, former US Senator (1995-2013), representative (1979-95), and Maine state legislator (1973-79).  Snowe was for many years one of the dying breed of moderate Northeastern Republicans who regularly worked for compromise with Democrats.  She chose not to run for re-election in 2012 out of frustration at the increasing ideological polarity in Congress, which she sees as having led to an appalling lack of accomplishment, as well as a depressing decline in civility.  She argues that the situation has been deteriorating over the last decade, but hit a new low in the 2011-12 Congress.

Very helpful for Kansas readers not very familiar with her life, Snowe provides interesting biographical material, from her growing up in Maine as a poor Greek-American and the early deaths of her parents and her first husband at a young age.  However, she always had the strong support of extended family and early in life learned to work with others to achieve common goals.  These skills she brought to her legislating, and for many years in both Augusta and Washington, they served her well.  She documents many of these successes dealing with a variety of issues.  She clearly relishes the political give-and-take of working with colleagues of different ideologies and apparently did it very well.  It is also clear that she grieves the lack of opportunity to do so more recently, especially in her last term as a U.S. Senator.  One cannot help but lament that such consensus seekers are most often not those who choose to run for President!

In this book Snowe shares her insider’s view on how and why this sorry state of affairs has evolved and offers suggestions of what can be done.  In one sense this is a familiar lament that many of various ideological positions have noted in recent years.  What sets this book aside from most is Snowe’s perspective from inside the Congress, and as someone who not only bemoans the lack of civility and willingness to compromise, but as one who has actually worked hard to achieve such compromise.  In earlier years, she achieved considerable success toward that end but found it increasingly difficult in recent years.

Although Snowe faults the Tea Party Republicans and rigid social conservatives, and in fact expresses much concern about the future of the Republican party, she also places blame on Democrats, especially the Obama administration, for pushing through health care reform without adequately soliciting and considering Republican views.  The problem as she sees it is one of broader political culture, not a fault solely of one party or the other.

In her chapter on specific suggestions for reform, she identifies two broad categories of needed reforms.  One the one hand she calls for changes in Senate and House rules and procedures, and on the other hand she calls for campaign finance and political reform.  Some of her proposed rule changes involve filibuster reform, more open amendment process, eliminating secret holds on legislation, moving to biennial instead of annual budgeting, establishing a bipartisan leadership committee, and requiring elected officials to serve five-day work weeks with no pay unless/until a budget is passed.

Among the campaign finance and political reforms she calls for are abolition of leadership political action committees, more open primary elections, and redistricting down by commissions rather than legislatures.  Sadly, she does not offer many specific tips about how to achieve these worthy ends.

This book is a worthy read, particularly for its insider’s view of someone who has directly experienced both legislative progress and legislative gridlock.

Richard Harris is a professor of psychology at K-State and a Manhattan resident.

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