May 19, 2013

Breaking the congressional logjam

Frustration over the lack of common ground leads Maine's former senator to write about how we can create it.

By FORMER SEN. OLYMPIA SNOWE

Last week, my book, "Fighting for Common Ground: How We Can Fix the Stalemate in Congress" was released. I dedicated the book to the people of Maine, who gave me the extraordinary honor of serving them at the highest levels of our government -- and whose expectations of elected officials to solve problems was at the root of everything I fought for in Congress, and continue to fight for today.

Former U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine

2012 file photo/The Associated Press

click image to enlarge

I'm excited by the opportunity this book affords to let the American people know that when it comes to the dysfunction in Washington, it doesn't have to be this way -- and we can take action.

Authoring a book was never something I thought about at any point during my tenure in office. In fact, as I tell people, about the only thing that was more surprising to me than when I decided not to seek re-election to the Senate was deciding to write this book!

But when I announced I wasn't running for re-election in February 2012, it was as if my belief that government could no longer be changed from the inside affirmed the feeling of millions of Americans that the system has gone seriously awry.

Everywhere I traveled, people approached me from all over America and expressed disappointment that I was leaving the Senate, but understood my reasons.

These individuals I've encountered are angry, fed up and fearful that the current dysfunction that's preventing us from solving our most challenging problems will continue as a permanent culture. They ask me, why is it so bad in Washington? How did it get this way? And can it be fixed?

That's why I wrote "Fighting for Common Ground," for those countless Americans in every town and city in this nation who clearly hunger for a government that works and the means for accomplishing that goal.

As I've conveyed to the many audiences I've spoken to over the past few months, I didn't leave the Senate because I no longer love it, but precisely because I do. I just want to bring my insider's experience and knowledge to bear as a megaphone for those on the outside who are thirsting for a voice to coalesce their frustration and a plan for changing the system so it can achieve the extraordinary potential our Founding Fathers envisioned.

From my 34 years in the Congress as a consensus-builder, I've witnessed that it doesn't have to be this way -- the current, corrosive hyper-partisanship doesn't have to be the new norm; we've risen to confront big problems in the past; and I'm convinced we can do so again.

That's critical, because there are a host of issues that simply will not be resolved without bipartisanship -- from our budget deficits and federal debt, to immigration reform, to an overhaul of our broken tax code and reform of our entitlement programs to ensure their continued strength and solvency.

As I write in my book, there are no magic wands with respect to changing our government. But there is a multiplicity of measures that we can undertake, and the changes I recommend can be separated into two broad categories: Senate rules and congressional procedures, and campaign finance and political reform.

In the Senate, rules reforms should include changes to the filibuster, banning secret "holds" placed by senators on legislation, and a more open amendment process.

In overall congressional reform, we should make permanent the idea of no pay for lawmakers if they fail to pass a federal budget; biennial budgeting, five-day work weeks, restoring "regular order" by returning to doing business through committees, and establishing a bipartisan Leadership Committee -- all of which would address many of the barriers to working across the political aisle that have developed in the last decade.

On the political front, I advocate campaign finance reform and independent state redistricting committees to avoid gerrymandering when the congressional districts are drawn after the 2020 census.

Also, I'm encouraging Americans to join a new movement and call to action through the Bipartisan Policy Center, where I am a senior fellow, by becoming a Citizen for Political Reform at its website, www.bipartisanpolicy.org.

The BPC was founded by four former Senate majority leaders, two Democrats and two Republicans: George Mitchell and Tom Daschle, and Howard Baker and Bob Dole.

As Americans, we've met our greatest challenges in the past by working together to solve big problems. It's time for a new movement of citizens working as a team, supporting ideas that can bridge the political divides and championing those who are willing to work across the political aisle.

And that's why part and parcel of this Citizens for Political Reform effort will be what we call the Common Ground Project, which will provide people with real-time insights into key issues before Congress, what's holding back passage of important legislation, and what the potential common ground options are for bringing the two sides together and forging solutions.

In so doing, we believe we can both attract people to the cause of finding common ground and attract the attention of lawmakers who want to find solutions but don't have the resources to develop them themselves.

It is crucial that we harness the power of social media, to mobilize from the grassroots upward to send an unmistakable message to our lawmakers that there is popular support for seeking common ground rather than destructive divisiveness.

Those who seek to divide us either by creating wedge issues or through hyper-partisan rhetoric would have us believe they are representing the vast majority of Americans, but they are not.

Regardless of what the polarizing forces and the political classes would have you believe, it is possible to move forward from our differences. What's required is creating the critical mass behind groups like the Bipartisan Policy Center and others I describe in my book, to unleash their ability to more profoundly influence the course of events in Congress.

We can make Congress the solutions-driven powerhouse it once was if we demand the kinds of reforms I describe above and elaborate on in my book.

Through www.olympiaslist.org I also intend to support elected officials and candidates who are willing to work for bipartisan solutions, in order to provide a political reward at the ballot box for doing so and a political penalty for those who don't.

I hope you'll join with me in the fight to make government work again.

- Special to the Telegram

 

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