On Tuesday, Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) announced that after 40 years of serving in Congress, she would not seek another term. Snowe is one of the very few remaining GOP moderates in the Senate and her departure was both unexpected and seismic. There’s good reason to believe a Democrat will take her seat and that could well make the difference in which party has a majority after this year’s elections.
Today, Snowe has taken the now-de rigueur step of penning a More In Sadness Than In Anger op-ed explaining her choice.
You’ll recall that Indiana’s Evan Bayh did the same thing in 2010. “In my final 11 months, I will advocate for the reforms,” he said. He didn’t actually do that. He told Ezra Klein he might teach, or lead a foundation, something where he could get real good done for the world. He didn’t actually do that either. Instead he became a lobbyist at a firm that represents “national energy companies, foreign countries, international manufacturing companies, trade associations and local and national businesses.”
Bayh’s op-ed was pathetic and self-serving, with all sorts of vapid talk about civility and compromise and senators eating lunch together more often. But at least he mentioned the extraordinary demands of raising money constantly and advocated for matching funds. At least he recognized the rampant abuse of holds and filibusters and advocated for new limits on their use. He didn’t do anything to advance these reforms, either in Congress or out of it, but at least he acknowledged the need. At least he didn’t pretend that the sole change needed was in the temperament of elected officials.
Snowe, however, goes there. She says nothing about the money swamping the Senate. She says nothing about holds. She cites the supermajority requirement as a good thing. Apparently the only reform the Senate requires is for senators to open their hearts to the “strength in compromise, courage in conciliation and honor in consensus-building.”
This is the same Snowe who has protested feebly but in the end gone meekly along with the lockstep oppositionalism of her party ever since Obama was elected. Her one true act of bipartisanship — admittedly it was a fateful one — was voting the Obama health care bill out of Baucus’ committee. But that’s pretty much it. She voted against the health care bill when it came to the floor. She dropped hints about support for a climate bill but in the end did what all the other conservatives did, which is talk publicly about how it could never pass. Despite much public agonizing and many faux overtures, she has mostly done what McConnell asked of her, like a good soldier.
Back in the real world, the trend toward partisanship in the U.S. is decades in the making. It’s the result of inexorable demographic, geographic, and ideological trends. There is no putting that genie back in the bottle. All that can be done to remedy the grotesque dysfunction of the U.S. Senate is to reform it so that it works in the presence of partisanship. You can’t have a working legislative body when political minorities have both the incentive and the ability to grind things to a halt.
There is, contra Snowe, pretty much no way to remove the incentive, no matter how often senators lunch together. What the Senate can do is remove the ability. That means eliminating or at least curtailing the *$^! filibuster. It means eliminating secret holds. It means improving disclosure and providing matching funds to reduce the toxic, endless pursuit of campaign money.
Here’s the thing though: The kinds of reforms that would make the Senate work better as a legislative body would also reduce the power of individual senators, particularly that handful of senators in “the middle” who hold the fate of every major bill in their preening, dissembling hands. (I’m looking at you, Ben Nelson.) Those senators, like Snowe, like to lament the dysfunction of the Senate in sober, Very Serious tones. But, like Snowe, they don’t want to do anything about it. Not really.
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