Snowe speaks on civility, addresses polarization in Washington
Oct 22, 2012 | 893 views | 0 0 comments | 5 5 recommendations | email to a friend | print
EXCLUSIVELY ONLINE: WASHINGTON, D.C. – Speaking to an overflow crowd of more than 225 people at the Ferguson Library in Stamford, Conn., last Wednesday, Oct. 17, U.S. Sen. Olympia J. Snowe, R-Maine, made an plea for restoring civility in political institutions and refocusing lawmakers’ efforts on problem-solving on behalf of the American people.

Citing excessive partisanship and polarization gripping Washington, Snowe discussed both the shortcomings of the current United States Senate, and pointed to examples of when the institution succeeded in solving America’s problems through bipartisanship and collaboration, according to a press relese from her office. Her remarks are part of a series on “Civility in America,” sponsored by the City of Stamford and The Dilenschneider Group.

Snowe has been praised as a leading voice in the American political arena for her centrist approach to governing throughout her career, which prompted the invitation to deliver the speech.

Elected to the House of Representative in 1978, Snowe promptly joined the Congressional Caucus on Women’s Issues, a bipartisan group which she co-chaired for 10 years with Democrat Pat Schroeder. After she was elected to the United States Senate in 1994, Snowe joined the Senate Centrist Coalition which she later co-chaired with Sen. John Breaux, D-Louisiana, from 1999 through 2004, and subsequently with then-Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut until 2006. After the 2006 elections, Senators Snowe and Mary Landrieu, D-Louisiana, founded the Common Ground Coalition to build on the success of the “Gang of 14” – the bipartisan group that averted a Senate shutdown over judicial nominations in the spring of 2005, of which Snowe was also a member – and bring both sides together to solve America’s pressing problems.

Snowe recently joined the National Advisory Board for the National Institute for Civil Discourse, which was established at the University of Arizona shortly after the Jan. 8, 2011 shootings outside a Tucson supermarket during Rep. Gabby Giffords’ public meeting, “Congress on Your Corner.”

Excerpts from the Senator’s prepared remarks, as noted in the press release, included:

On What Defines Civility in Politics

“Unequivocally and absolutely, our use of words can be powerful and critically important in setting the tone for our national discourse. I can’t tell you how many people who approached me from all over America have expressed their disappointment with my decision, and how fed up and angry they are about the harsh rhetoric and the partisan bickering that’s fueling legislative deadlock in Washington.

“The cumulative effect is that policy-making has virtually been abandoned as a matter of practice in our government, and has now devolved into a series of gotcha votes for political leverage.

“Indisputably, words are a critical component of civility. Indeed, every day in the United States Senate, we address each other as ‘my good friend,’ or ‘my esteemed colleague’ – and that’s a worthy practice. And yet, for all of these apparent niceties, we have still proceeded to become the least productive Congress since 1947. Clearly, then, we are missing what is the second key component to civility in politics – and that is a willingness to listen to and work with those with whom we disagree, and to respect differing views. To acknowledge you don’t have a monopoly on all of the good ideas. To accept that you won’t typically get 100 percent of what you seek, and therefore attempt to work through the differences. Because civility above all is the one, essential mechanism for distilling the vast diversity of ideologies and opinions in modern America, so that we might arrive at solutions to the challenges we face.”

On Not Settling for Excessive Partisanship

“Throughout my time in Washington, I’ve witnessed government’s greatest potential. I’ve also experienced its calamitous capacity for dysfunction. Indeed, as I stated in announcing I would not seek a fourth term in the United States Senate, I find it profoundly regrettable that excessive political polarization in Washington today is preventing us from achieving solutions precisely at a time of monumental challenges for our nation. But if there’s one message I want to convey, it’s that we do not need to accept that polarized partisanship-at-all-costs has to be the ‘new norm.’ We can reverse the tide. Because even as the atmosphere in Washington today is all-too-often lamentable, I am convinced it is not irreparable.

On What is Wrong with the Senate

“As far back as the fledgling days of our nation, our Founding Fathers warned of the dangers of undue allegiance to political parties – a potential that Alexander Hamilton and James Madison specifically cited in the Federalist Papers. Now, one study by three political scientists pegs Congress at its highest level of polarization since the end of Reconstruction. And it’s no coincidence that one noted congressional scholar observed that, while people always say ‘this is the worst Congress ever’ – this time, they’re right. I’ve witnessed firsthand in the Senate how the political gulf is stifling our ability to carry out even our most fundamental obligations. We haven’t even passed a budget resolution for more than three years, which just happen to be the same three years of our highest federal deficits in America’s history. And what is the reason? We hear constantly that those who are in charge of the process don’t want to subject their members to potentially politically difficult votes. So instead of focusing on issues as the Senate was uniquely established to do, we’ve become more like a parliamentary system where we simply vote in political blocks. And we’ve departed and diverged from the Senate’s traditional rules and norms in a manner that is entirely contradictory to the historical purpose of the Senate.

“And let there be no mistake, this is the kind of poisonous political atmosphere that produced legislative and financial brinkmanship at its worst last year, in the manner in which we handled the monumental issue of the debt ceiling issue. We could have avoided the debacle if we had begun working together to negotiate at the beginning of the year, in January, instead of deferring until the eleventh hour in August. Instead, Congress’s inaction led to our first bond rating downgrade in history and the highest level of policy uncertainty in America in the last 20 years according to a report by three economists – surpassing the Persian Gulf War, surpassing 9/11, and surpassing the financial crisis of 2008.”

On Efforts to Reverse the Partisanship

“What reversing the bitter partisanship will demand, however, is all of us providing a political reward at the ballot box for those politicians who work toward common ground, and a political penalty for those who don’t. That’s why I’m writing a book as a call-to-arms for reclaiming our government – and that includes harnessing the awesome power of social media to galvanize movements as we’ve seen in America and around the world. I also plan to speak across America on the necessity for reaching across the political aisle. Because bipartisanship isn't a political theory it is a political necessity. It’s not about whether it’s a Republican idea or a Democrat idea, but whether it’s a good idea. It’s not about what’s in the best interests of a single political party, but what’s in the best interests of the people of the United States of America – all of us.

“That’s why I’ve long said it is time we stop talking about the ‘red’ and the ‘blue’ and start uniting under the ‘red, white and blue.’ For history proves that the obstacles before us are not insurmountable if we refuse to be intractable.

Closing Remarks

“And I want to leave you with this thought – that we do have a foundation today for rebuilding a government that works. The recent proliferation of groups dedicated in one form or another to civility in politics gives us tremendous impetus for hope. We have this extraordinarily important Civility Series. We have organizations like Third Way, which is working to bring Democrats to the middle, as is the Republican Main Street Partnership from the other side. We have No Labels, seeking to move American politics from ‘point scoring’ to ‘problem solving.’ Americans Elect has been trying to change ‘the way we elect our leaders.’ And I recently spoke with the incredibly courageous former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords and her husband, Mark Kelly, who are involved with the National Institute for Civil Discourse which was established last year -- and I agreed to join their board. So we have the underpinnings for a movement to bring civility, compromise, and consensus building back to government. If we can channel social media, if we can get millions of Americans as engaged as we are, we can not only hold our elected officials accountable, but give them the political strength to go to their leaders and demand that we work together to forge solutions.”