After Arlen Specter and Lincoln Chaffee departed from the Republican Party, Olympia Snowe and her fellow Senator from Maine, Susan Collins, remained as the most prominent Republicans to be termed RINOs. Now Senator Snowe has left the Senate in frustration over its addiction to gridlock, and has embarked on a campaign to promote the cause of bipartisanship. In that effort, she has published a book, Fighting for Common Ground, and created a website, Olympia’s List.org to “provide a gathering point for all of us who believe our elected officials need to put the country ahead of politics, to facilitate the distribution of news about activities taking place to further that goal, and to identify and support like-minded candidates and office holders.” Along with her devotion to bipartisanship, however, Senator Snowe has also made it explicitly clear that she remains a proud Republican, dedicated to the traditional principles of our party: “limited government, strong defense, lower taxes, and individual freedom and opportunity.” (Senator Snowe has not yet, so far as I know, embraced the label “RINO” as a badge of honor, but if RINOcracy.com can attract enough followers, perhaps she will come to that.)A comment to Blog No. 2, asked for an analysis of “why politics prevents [C]ongress from doing what is self-evidently needed” with respect to taxing, spending and the deficit.” Much of the answer can be found in Fighting For Common Ground. The book is, in part, a charming memoir, but more importantly, it provides a lucid explanation—illuminated by personal experience—of the problems that currently beset the legislative process. Equally important, it suggests possible solutions. It is worth the time of every RINO to obtain and read a copy of the book.
Foremost among the causes of legislative stalemate, of course, is the polarization of our two major parties. For example, with respect to fiscal policy, Senator Snowe observed that, “[I]f one side pledges not to raise taxes while the other side starts from a position that they won’t address the growth in entitlement spending, it’s likely to take a very long time to reach any agreement, let alone balance the budget.” Moreover, polarization is not limited to fiscal matters, but infects virtually every major issue before Congress. To some extent, the polarization on Capitol Hill reflects the views of the public at large. And the intensity of public opinion has been marked by the growing importance “one-issue voters,” i.e, those whose vote for his or her Senator or Congressman will be heavily influenced, or perhaps determined, by the latter’s position on a single issue. That posture is illustrated by recent polls on voter attitudes concerning measures to create a path to legal status for illegal immigrants and to expand background checks for gun purchases. While a majority of voters supported each measures, many of those who disagreed said, as to each proposal, they felt so strongly on the subject that they could not vote for a candidate who supported it (60%, path to legal status; 46%, expanded background check.)
Polarization is also nourished by well-organized and well-funded lobbying groups. In connection with the “no tax increase position,” Snowe mentioned Grover Norquist and his notorious pledge, but she could well have added the powerful Club for Growth. On the other side of the ledger, the position that entitlements are untouchable is championed by the largest and most well-funded lobby in Washington, AARP. (The New York Times reported in December, 2012, that after some earlier signs of moderation, the organization had “veered back to a hard-line position of opposing any cutbacks in Medicare or Social Security and is seeking to keep those programs off the bargaining table altogether.”)
In the House of Representatives, polarization is still further magnified by anomalies in districting: gerrymandering of districts for the protection of incumbents. That is, Congressional districts are drawn (sometimes with quite odd configurations) to protect incumbents by concentrating large numbers of voters from an incumbent’s own party in his or her district. As a result, incumbents often have more to fear from a challenge in a primary contest than opposition in the general election. Moreover, voters in primary elections tend to be the most highly motivated members of their party—which almost always means the most conservative Republicans and the most liberal Democrats. Although Senators are elected on a statewide basis, fear of primary challenges is almost as pervasive among members that chamber. In Fighting For Common Ground, Senator Snowe reminds us of the several recent instances where a senatorial hopeful supported by the Tea Party ousted an “establishment” Republican, only to lose the seat to the Democrats. On the Democratic side, she also noted the challenges to Senators Blanche Lincoln and Joe Lieberman from more liberal members of their party.
In addition to polarization, Snowe’s book describes two other important obstacles to legislative progress. Antiquated rules of procedure give the leadership in the Senate extraordinary ability to manipulate the process to block amendments to pending bills which, in turn, encourages overuse of the filibuster. Compounding its other problems, Congress now works on essentially a three day work week with Mondays and Fridays devoted to scurrying to and from home states and districts.
By way of solutions to the legislative morass, Senator Snowe first makes nine very specific recommendations for reforming the legislative process, including filibuster reform, eliminating secret holds on legislation, requiring biennial budgeting, adhering to a five-day work week and adopting a “No Budget, No Pay” rule. A second set of recommendations calls for campaign finance reform, institution of more open primaries, and establishing redistricting commissions. It would prolong this blog unduly to describe in detail, let alone evaluate, each recommendation, but RINOs–and friends of RINOs—are urged to consult the book and reach their own conclusions. The overriding question, of course, is how to create the political will and momentum to achieve any or all of the proposed reforms.
One path to reform within the Republican Party may come from a “Revolt of the Donors.” In a June 9 article, The Los Angeles Times reported on a meeting in Utah among major Republican donors, political leaders and potential Presidential candidates. According to the Times, the donors pressed party officials to get beyond a focus on divisive social issues. In addition, the Times reported that “[Governor Chris] Christie fired up the room, according to several accounts, by delivering a speech about the importance of bipartisanship and finding common ground with Democrats. He was the only one of the three would-be candidates, donors said, who got a standing ovation.”
But pressure from donors may not be enough, and Senator Snowe has called for a more grass-roots approach in the form of “a relentless citizens’ movement demanding that [our elected officials] seek the common ground these perilous times demand.” But how is such a citizens’ movement to be created and sustained? Snowe’s answer: the use of social media and the online community. To that end, she listed a number of organizations that she believes worthy of supporting in order to create the essential political climate. They include the Bipartisan Policy Center, No Labels, Main Street Partnership, Campaign to Fix the Debt, The National Institute For Civil Discourse, and her own Olympia’s List. (In addition, for DINOs perhaps, Third Way.) Snowe candidly acknowledged that none of the organizations have “a sufficient number of followers to create the critical mass necessary to have an impact on Congress.” Nevertheless, she argued, “together they have the potential to be a significant, positive influence on the governmental process.”
Senator Snowe may be overly optimistic, but that’s where we come in. I urge RINOs and our friends to visit the websites of the organizations Snowe identified and, if one or more appeals to you, join their ranks. In addition, my personal suggestion is simple and direct: the next time primary season rolls around, get in involved and don’t abandon the field to the more extreme elements of your party, be it Republican or Democratic, be sure to vote and, if possible, contribute your time and money to a candidate for whom bipartisanship and compromise are not alien concepts. And, oh yes, keep reading RINOcracy.com and recommend it to your friends.