Former U.S. senator Olympia Snowe

The outspoken centrist weighs in on why Washington isn’t solving the big problems and offers solutions from her text, Fighting for the Common Good.

A moderate Republican with a reputation for crossing the aisle, Olympia Snowe represented Maine in the U.S. Congress for 34 years. She was the first woman in American history to serve in both houses of a state legislature and both houses of Congress. In the U.S. Senate, she was a senior member of the powerful Finance committee and the Commerce, Intelligence and Small Business committees, as well as a member of the bipartisan "Gang of 14." In 2012, Snowe announced that she would not seek a fourth Senate term due to a dysfunctional Congress and proposes solutions for bridging DC's partisan divide in her call-to-action text, Fighting for Common Ground.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: Many people are frustrated with the partisan bickering in Washington, none more so than the former moderate Republican senator from Maine, Olympia Snowe. After 40 years as a public servant, including 18 years in the Senate, she decided not to run again.

Today, as a senior fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington think tank, she’s now urging voters in America to demand real political reform, an argument she makes in her new text, “Fighting for Common Ground: How We can Fix the Stalemate in Congress.” Senator Snowe, good to have you on tonight.

Olympia Snowe: Thank you, Tavis; it’s great to be here.

Tavis: Let me go right at it. You are regarded by many as a fighter, and I think indeed you regard yourself as a fighter. How do you juxtapose the notion of fighting with, as some might put it, cutting and running? If you’re a fighter, why not stay and fight this in the Senate?

Snowe: Because it’s a question of whether or not you’re going to achieve the results that are necessary to change the current political dynamic. So I haven’t left the fight, I just left the Senate. I’m taking my fight in a different direction, and my book is an extension of this effort to give voice to the frustration to the 90 percent of the American who view Congress as being too partisan.

But secondly also to illustrate how the process has worked in the past, what’s gone wrong, and what other things that can be done now, in real time, presently, to begin to have an impact on redirecting the political environment in Washington that leads to solutions.

Tavis: Tell me more, Senator Snowe, about why the fight to do this has to happen from the outside and not from the inside? I ask that against the backdrop of the fact that you decided to step aside as a Republican. Evan Bayh in Indiana had some of the same concerns, a Democrat. He stepped outside the Senate to continue these kinds of fights.

He wrote a piece in “The New York Times” stating some of the same things you’ve laid out here, in his own way, of course. But whether you have a Republican or a Democrat, there are those who think that the way to fix the Senate, to fix Washington, is from the outside, and that it can’t be done on the inside. Tell me why that’s the case.

Snowe: Because I think we have to change the incentives in the political system and reward bipartisanship and consensus and compromise, and that does have to come, I think, from Americans who can become the counterweight, frankly, to so many organizations and outside interests in the political system and in the campaigns that fuel the polarization and the machinery of partisanship.

So we know that they have spent tireless not only money, but engaged in tireless efforts to continue to divide. So it’s necessary for, I think, Americans to become engaged, and there’s ways in which to do that.

Through the Bipartisan Policy Center, we have just launched a whole new website called Citizens for Political Reform in conjunction with the Common Ground project so that they can weigh in in real time, form a grassroot catalyst to bridge the political divide and look for the common ground options, know what they are on the issues that are currently pending in the House and the Senate, and who the lawmakers who are willing to champion that divide.

I’ve created my own political action committee to support consensus candidates for the future. So I think that we have to value bipartisanship because otherwise there are going to be those who are just going to be willing to continue to enhance this partisanship for their own political gain, but does nothing to further the interests of the country as it stands today.

So that’s why it has to work from the outside, and so I can tell people and share with them what could be effective to make this change.

Tavis: So you hit this issue a moment ago – that is, the notion of the agency that fellow citizens have to do something about this mess that some might call a cesspool that is Washington these days; you call it a lack of bipartisanship. But what agency do the American people really have?

It’s clear that the American people are disappointed in the way the Congress works or doesn’t work, to your earlier point. The polls and studies and surveys underscore that, that we’re disappointed with Congress.

But what agency do the American people actually have to do something about that frustration?

Snowe: Well, I just know from my speeches across the country and talking to various audiences, whether it’s on campus or in other forums, and people are absolutely fed up with the harsh partisanship and the bickering that’s fueled this legislative stalemate, and they constantly as me, “What can we do about it?”

That’s why we’ve launched this Common Ground project, to have a specific website so they can go on there, find what are the options available to lawmakers, to work through the issues, to express their voice.

Because I think so often, Tavis, people underestimate the impact that they can have on the political process. Look how Congress responded to the air traffic controllers, for example.

They didn’t want to incur the wrath of their constituents when they’re sitting on the same planes that are idling on the tarmac because of the cutbacks. They responded to that.

We can see that in other ways. People ask me on the universal background check, well, if 90 percent of the American people supported it, why is it that it didn’t pass?

I said, “Well, because the 10 percent happens to be vocal and organized.” I think the point is here you have to look at the issues, and if we want to make progress in this country on the fundamental issues that have been neglected by Congress, if you think about the last few years, what have we accomplished for the American people?

When you look at the issues that are looming on the horizon, whether it’s entitlement reform or tax reform or regulatory reform, we have lost precious time to address these issues and to mitigate the effects they’re going to have just a few short years down the road.

Tavis: Americans across the country, after Sandy Hook, every poll, every study, every survey that was taken, made it abundantly clear that the American people wanted something done.

It’s one thing not to get an assault weapons ban to the floor. It’s another thing, to your point, to not even get background measures passed, even though 90 percent of the American people were for it.

So it’s not that the American people didn’t speak on this, and it’s not like their voices weren’t heard. Everybody knows that they were upset, that we – I put myself in that – that we were upset and we wanted something done.

So to your point about the 10 percent being vocal and organized, isn’t that just a nice way of saying that money runs Washington? That Washington is bought and bossed by big money?

Snowe: Well, but I think there’s a whole issue on expressing oneself through phone calls and emails or letters. It’s absolutely paramount in making their voices heard. I think that’s part of it.

I think it really does influence the process to have people weigh in in vast numbers to know -

Tavis: Right.

Snowe: – that there will be a penalty paid for not being willing to support the initiative and to work on a bipartisan basis. That’s the other thing. We have to turn the table at the elections and even before that, and reward those who are going to be willing to work on a bipartisan basis and penalize those who don’t.

I think that lawmakers have to understand, they have to be held accountable. In this instance on the background check, it can be in every instance of what happened here.

But clearly, it was obvious that Congress needed to be overwhelmed by the numbers in that 90 percent who wanted Congress to do something about it, and obviously they didn’t fear the penalty enough not to follow that rule.

Now I know there’s some differences in some regions and districts that make a difference on this question, and it’s not all, it’s not a partisan issue, it’s more regional and geographic. But in this case, I think even those who support guns and gun rights understand how we had to make some modest changes in light of Sandy Hook.

Tavis: I didn’t mean to cut you off, but maybe the issue of fear that you’re raising didn’t apply in this case, to my mind, as it doesn’t apply in any number of other cases, because of one single thing: Gerrymandering.

Snowe: Yes.

Tavis: These districts have so many members who are saving these districts, and as long as they do what they know plays in their districts as opposed to what’s in the best interests of the nation, they can get away with that.

So talk to me about how so much of what you write about in your book just has to do with these gerrymandered safe districts that doesn’t put anybody, that doesn’t make anybody have to come across the aisle and to try to be bipartisan on issues that matter to the American people.

Snowe: Well, you’re right, Tavis. If you look at all the statistics and the analyses that have been done very recently – in fact, there was one Fair Vote study that said that there were 21 competitive seats.

Nate Silver said there were 35 seats in the House of Representatives that are competitive out of 435 compared to 20 years ago, when there were 103 seats. So yes, it’s dramatically changed. We need to have independent redistricting commissions. That’s one of the points I make in my book.

That can happen at the state level. Some states have moved in that direction. I know California has, my state has. I think it’s critically essential to changing the dynamic so that you have broader-based candidates emerging from these primaries because the districts aren’t gerrymandered.

The same could be true with open primaries, for example. That’s another way to making sure that you have candidates across the spectrum within a political party as opposed to a very narrowly tailored candidate -

Tavis: What about PACs?

Snowe: – that represents a small – yeah, boy, well, political action committees, it was my provision in Citizens United that was struck down -

Tavis: Right.

Snowe: – on issue advocacy, so no one is more dismayed than I am about what transpired in that decision, not only striking down my provision. It withstood the first challenge in the Supreme Court when Sandra Day O’Connor was there.

But then they unraveled for 100 years of precedent and case law, so we’re going to have to figure out – and I’ve talked to many people – is the real challenges to how you draft campaign finance reform to withstand constitutional scrutiny.

But it’s something that really has to be done, and both sides have to be vested in it. They have to have an interest in bringing both sides together and getting this done for the best interests of this country.

The money is overwhelming. The campaigns, the time it takes to raise money and the time spent is enormous, and those, again, those people have an interest in fueling the fires and stoke the fires in the Congress are going to continue to raise the decibels, not to mention further demonize people’s viewpoints and positions that really prevent people from even taking a thoughtful position Congress, because you don’t ever have a chance to even get to that point.

So yes, campaign finance reform is a huge issue that I think that the Congress and the American people have to demand as well.

Tavis: We’ve just scratched the surface tonight on a book full of, chock full of great ideas about how to fix what is broken in Washington, written by former U.S. Senator Olympia Snowe.

The book is called “Fighting for Common Ground: How We Can Fix the Stalemate in Congress.” Senator, thank you for your service and thank you for the text.

Snowe: Thank you, Tavis, I appreciate it.

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.

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Last modified: May 24, 2013 at 12:58 pm