Use your power to fix Congress

Republican Olympia Snowe’s nearly four decades as a lawmaker began at age 26 when she was elected to fill the Maine House seat left vacant by her husband’s death in an automobile accident.

She moved on to Washington as a House member (1979-95) and a senator (1995-2013) who worked with and sometimes voted with Democrats.

She made headlines in 2012 when she cited a dysfunctional Congress as the reason she had decided not to run for a fourth term. She’s the author of “Fighting for Common Ground: How We Can Fix the Stalemate in Congress.” She’ll be in Charlotte on Thursday to talk about these issues.

Snowe, 67, recently spoke with the Observer. The Q&A has been edited.

Q. What can ordinary people do to “fight for common ground,” as your book title puts it?

A. I say to people, “You have to use your voice and your vote.” Because otherwise we’re empowering the fractious minority that’s overtaken our political system. How did a small percentage of our population really capture the political system and create the kind of hyper-partisanship today that is reflected in the halls of Congress? The answer is that they empowered themselves by using their voice and their vote.

Right now, we have an election (coming in November). Put pressure on these candidates. In a debate, get them to answer how they’re going to make government work, and ask them the question: “Are you prepared to support legislation to be there (in Washington) five days a week, three weeks in the month?” We’ve got to demand accountability.

Q. One of the recommendations calls for Congress to schedule five-day workweeks. Are you telling them, “Work like your constituents do”?

A. It’s a pretty basic thing. I used to argue, “Let’s cancel a few recesses and work some weekends here (in Washington). And let’s do something while we’re here. I understand going home. But the point is that when it’s time to be in Washington, we should focus on the issues at hand and concentrate on these complex matters.

I am not exaggerating when I say (the Senate) has done virtually nothing in the last few years. If anything was accomplished, it was only because, at the end of the day, we were in the throes of another manufactured crisis and we had to reach an agreement, whether it was the debt ceiling crisis or the fiscal cliff crisis that required my vote at 2:00 in the morning on New Year’s Eve Day.

People are astounded at the inability of Congress to resolve any issues, large or small. And they’re fearful for the future of this country, based on what they’ve witnessed occurring in Washington.

Q. I talked to one congressman who said, “John Adams and Thomas Jefferson and James Madison – they played pretty rough, too.” How does today’s toxic political environment compare with other times in our history?

A. People say it was much worse in the U.S. Senate when there were duels and brawls. But is that the standard by which we want to measure the Senate in the 21st century? How productive have we been – that’s the standard we want to judge this Congress. At the end of the day, have you solved the problems? And I think we’re bearing witness that we haven’t.

If they have to reach all the way back to John Adams (to find an equally toxic time), that’s a problem. But even back then, they still managed to accomplish something.

Q. Your commission says the identity of all campaign donors should be disclosed. But the report doesn’t say much about trying to actually reduce the influence of money in politics. Why not?

A. I think everybody is frustrated because, without a constitutional amendment, you’re handicapped about what you can accomplish. So that’s why we came up with the idea of a national commission to study campaign finance.

It’s abhorrent what’s happened in the political system with the infusion of outside groups spending millions and millions. We recommended forced disclosure, so you will bring (secret donors) out from the shadows.

Q. You’re a Republican moderate, which makes you a rare breed. How can the two parties get back to the center and be big-tent parties again?

A. It’s redistricting and the open primary – getting more people to participate in the primary process rather than allowing the ideologues and the fierce partisans to dominate. When they do, it leaves few choices in the general election. So people stay at home and don’t vote or they’re left with choices that are at the opposing ends of the political spectrum rather than having a more centrist candidate to vote for.

Those in the middle are more willing to see the other side, they’re willing to solve problems, to compromise. And most would support splitting the difference if necessary.

Q. How do you answer people who say, “You abandoned ship when you left the Senate. You could have stayed and worked for change within”?

A. I want to drive change. That’s what I loved about politics and public service – to be able to develop solutions for my constituents and the country. But obviously that’s not the inclination (in the Senate) today. It’s to perpetuate politics, not the solutions that bring people together. I was not giving up when I left Congress. I was taking my fight in a different direction.