Olympia Snowe was first elected to the House in 1978 and to the Senate in 1994. Earlier this year, the Maine Republican announced her retirement—discouraging GOP hopes for taking control of the Senate and causing Washington to ask what’s happened to the political center. Edited excerpts from her conversation with National Journal follow.
NJ How did things in Congress go so terribly wrong?
SNOWE It mirrors the divisions occurring across the country. You’ve got the 24-hour media cycle and everything getting enhanced under a microscope. If you look at the recent National Journal analysis done by Ronald Brownstein, in 1982, 58 senators came between the most conservative Democrat and the most liberal Republican, and now there is no one. That speaks to the divisions that have occurred in the country. Everything’s defined by the MSNBC or Fox News prism.
NJ When you came to Congress in 1978, New England had a slew of moderate Republican senators. What’s happened to your party in your part of the country?
SNOWE I well remember when [former Maine Republican Sen.] Bill Cohen made his announcement not to run again in 1996. I was at a centrist coalition meeting chaired by [the late Rhode Island Republican Sen.] John Chafee and [former Louisiana Democratic Sen.] John Breaux, and John [Chafee] said, “The Senate has changed. It’s not the institution it once was.” And think about how different it has become since then. The people either departing by retirement or through defeat—and especially in the last few elections—have been centrists.
NJ The filibuster and the threat of one have become much more common. Has that encouraged division?
SNOWE It goes back to whether or not there is a propensity or an inclination to work together. If there was such an inclination, there would be a very different, pragmatic approach. Cloture was created back in 1917 and basically was designed to be an institution of accommodation. All the major issues that occurred in the last century garnered very strong bipartisan votes: Social Security, Medicare, the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, No Child Left Behind. This either-or proposition, in terms of how you address an issue—it’s either 100 percent the wrong way or 100 percent the right way—doesn’t foster that. Sometimes, someone else has a good idea in this process.
NJ What do you think President Obama could have done differently in 2009?
SNOWE I said to [Treasury] Secretary [Timothy] Geithner, “Let’s do tax reform.” We would lay the foundation for regenerating economic growth and have a transition from the stimulus to the private sector.
NJ Do you think you could have gotten that?
SNOWE Absolutely, if we gave it the time, [without] all these recesses. This has been the Senate of recesses.
NJ Is part of the problem the leadership? You were close to [former Mississippi GOP Sen.] Trent Lott, who got a lot done.
SNOWE I was in his whip organization in the early ’80s. If you look at the track record when President Reagan was elected—I was part of that coalition; Trent was helpful in building that coalition—we literally spent days and weeks fashioning a budget by sitting around a table to come up with proposals with Dave Stockman, who was the OMB director, and going through function by function. President Reagan had a full agenda, and he set about to make it happen and work in concert with the Congress. And so, bipartisanship isn’t the end: It’s the means to achieve the end. And you may not like it, but that’s not the point. The point is that you sit down and work through the issues.
NJ Does working outside the committee process, as with the super committee or going straight to the floor, make things worse?
SNOWE A committee process fosters bipartisanship. Anytime you craft a bill and most of it occurred behind closed doors, and it was reported on the floor with 300- and 400-page amendments, and they’re voted on up or down—that isn’t the way to legislate. I certainly prefer to build a strong bipartisan core, and that is the best way, on major, significant pieces of legislation, to accomplish things. It’s transparent and an open process, and it’s on TV, and people see and hear the views. You may not agree with the final process, but people can see how the Senate arrived at a final result. You had the chance to weigh in on everything and you could accept the final proposal. These up-or-down votes on major questions without any review or analysis or involvement of committees, it’s just sort of weird.
NJ What are your plans?
SNOWE I do intend to stay involved and speaking out, reinforcing the message about the need to build consensus. I haven’t made any decisions yet.
NJ You’re the first woman to serve in both chambers of a statehouse and both chambers of Congress. Your husband’s a former Maine governor. Any interest in being governor?
This is drawn from the first in a series of talks with retiring members of Congress. “The Exit Interview” will appear in National Journal Daily.
This article appears in the May 5, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.