Olympia Snowe Hopes to Fix Partisan Congress Once She Leaves It

Retiring Maine senator calls for incentives for compromise, says she'll do her part from the outside.

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Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe decided to call it quits on her lengthy legislative career, but says she's not ready to abandon the system entirely.

The moderate Republican is known affectionately by some as a willing dealmaker and by others as a thorn in their more partisan side. She says she was driven to abandon her bid for a fourth Senate term because of the dysfunction of the institution--something she aims to work on from the outside.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Republican party.]

"What's happened is that the process here at the United States Senate has not created the kind of environment where both sides are working together in lockstep focusing on the key issues that matter right now," Snowe said in a recent interview.

And as a result, it's no surprise Americans have lost faith in their political institutions, she said.

"I always say if somebody has a temperature of 105, you know you have a problem. Well, when you're in Congress and political institutions have a rating of 9 to 12 percent, whatever the case may be, I mean that, I think, is a reflection of a serious problem," she said. "The American people have lost confidence in their political leaders and their political institutions to address the big questions facing this country at a time they deserve strong and effective and practical leadership."

The very idea of "practical" leadership has been swallowed up by a political system, thanks to more partisan congressional districts and the availability of outside cash ready to fund primary challengers. And though Snowe was well-positioned to retain her seat, she was facing primary challengers for the first time in years. She said the only way to change the poisonous political culture is for voters to incentivize against it at the ballot box.

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"Either human behavior is going to change or be altered here, or it's going to be altered for them," she said. "The way to alter that, which is in the grasp of the American people and one of the issues that I will certainly focus on in my post-Senate career, is that the American people have the capacity to reward those individuals who are prepared to be consensus builders and bridge builders."

Though much has been made of the vanishing center in Congress, that is, lawmakers willing to vote across party lines, Snowe said there are still some who would fill that role. There are just not enough of them.

"You have probably 80 percent in each caucus that may not [be willing to compromise]," she said. "And so there just simply aren't enough overall to make the difference at this point."

The burden for making change, therefore, comes from the voters, she said.

"The American people have to support candidates who are prepared to do that, not just give lip service and deference, but are truly prepared to commit to the idea of solving problems," she said. "That's not to say you are compromising on your principles or forsaking them, but rather understanding that each side has their own philosophical positions and therefore you have to figure out what's important to them on the other side and whether or not it's something you can accept so that you can build something that is best for the country."

Returning to a refrain that has caused heartburn for her Republican leadership, Snowe said, "No one side has a monopoly on good ideas and no one philosophy."

"It is going to be derived from the best of all of the views that are contributed and to try and develop these legislative initiatives. But that is what's not happening," she said. "So the American people are really going to have to view candidates from one other dimension, beyond their positions: Do they have the traits--the qualities and traits essential--to contribute to problem-solving, which is the essence of public service in my opinion."

It's that old-school commitment to the notion of being a senator for the sake of what it can mean to the people of your state and your country rather than what it can mean for your political party that seems to be the missing ingredient, according to Snowe.