Olympia Snowe on Losing Faith in Congress

Photograph by Matthew Cavanaugh for The Washington Post via Getty Images

On Feb. 29, Senator Olympia Snowe, the popular Republican from Maine, surprised Washington by announcing she would step down when her third term ends later this year. A centrist who backs abortion rights and has often cast her vote with Democrats, Snowe cited a “hyperpartisan” environment as the reason she’s leaving Capitol Hill. Edited excerpts from a conversation I had with Senator Snowe this week:

Dwoskin: On many occasions in your career—Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, the recent birth control exemption for employers, and President Obama’s economic stimulus package—you haven’t voted with your fellow Republicans. How did colleagues react when you bucked party discipline?

Snowe: I don’t face any particular hostility. You just have to decide what is important in terms of the issue and whether or not your views are consistent with theirs depending on your constituents’ perspective. I’m in the whip organization, so I sort of get on the front lines of knowing what issues are paramount within the party. I let them know I have a view that might differ with their position, or with what their hope would be for the vote.

You’ve been a senator since 1994 and before that served in the House for 16 years. When did you face the most pressure from your party to change your mind on an issue?

Ah, there’s been so many over the years. Back in 2003, I was insisting we should have offsets on the tax cuts—the $350 billion that President Bush wanted with respect to a stimulus. At first it was going to be $350 billion and then there was a decision to go beyond that to $1.1 trillion. I said that if we go beyond the $350 billion, we ought to pay for it. We had just started a war and we were still in a post-9/11 environment. That was a very difficult period, because they wanted those tax cuts and they needed my vote. We had to go down to the White House and so on. (Snowe didn’t change her mind, and prevailed.)

What do you want your legacy to be?

That I always tried to do the right thing. I always say: We only have 100 senators, and every vote and every voice makes a difference. Integrity and trust are the critical ingredients for generating confidence in people you elect to represent you. It’s really the link through which all else is sustained. [Constituents] may not always agree with a decision, but they respect the way you made it.

You’ve said your choice to not seek reelection has to do with the fact that Washington has lost that sense of integrity in the eyes of the public.

That is the sad truth that has emerged in recent years. We elected officials have not approached the act of legislating with doing what’s right for the country, what people would deserve to have in the most tumultuous times. I got in this to solve problems. But somehow it all devolved into this hyperpartisan environment that discourages and disillusions and frustrates people. You have the various manifestations of that with the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street. We’ve short-circuited the process by which we reach our ultimate decisions. We’ve eroded the credibility of our actions. I’ve traveled around the country and heard from people who feel deeply disturbed by the political paralysis and dysfunction that has gripped Washington.

So basically, you didn’t see yourself as being able to solve problems in a way that felt satisfying.

No, and we wouldn’t have a 9 percent approval rating if we could. That’s an individual and a collective failure.

What has disturbed you the most?

In January 2011 we knew we had a debt ceiling deadline that would be extremely contentious. We also knew the deadline was March, which got pushed to April, then May, then deferred to August. So we should have hit the ground running and tackled the issue. In the first six months, we were in quorum calls or morning business half the time. We did nothing to show we were concentrating on the key issues. We have lots of hearings: I call them “the road to nowhere.”

So what will you do next? How will you spend your time?

Making sure there are political rewards for building consensus. That’s what we have to create. That’s why we’re in a deadlock. I do think it’s important for that change to come from the outside because it may not happen internally. The American people need to begin to insist and demand that brand of legislating.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.