Most politicians leave Congress on the wrong end of an election. Not so Senators Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) and Kent Conrad (D-North Dakota), and Congressmen Gary Ackerman (D-New York) and Geoff Davis (R-Kentucky). They all decided they’d had enough of government and will step down at the end of the second session of the 112th Congress. On June 18 the foursome gathered at a restaurant steps from Capitol Hill to speak candidly with Bloomberg Businessweek editor Josh Tyrangiel about what being a member of a highly partisan Congress is really like. In their exit interviews, they were asked to avoid evasive clichés—“it’s been an honor to serve…”—and (with a few exceptions) succeeded. The conversation has been condensed and edited.
BBW: What is the state of bipartisanship and how has it changed since your arrival in Washington?
SNOWE: Well, it’s dramatically changed. When I arrived in the House of Representatives in 1979, we worked on a bipartisan basis. I ended up co-chairing the Congresswoman’s Caucus for 10 years with Pat Schroeder, and even though we had differences among the women in the Congresswoman’s Caucus on the question of choice, for example, we transcended those differences. We achieved family medical leave. We did child support enforcement, pension reform, to name a few. Now it’s perpetual campaigning.
BBW: Senator Conrad, when you were negotiating with the Group of Six over the deficit, you said, “If we can’t get a deal done, then my last five years have been wasted.”
CONRAD: Did I say that?
BBW: You did actually, yes.
CONRAD: Well, first of all, I deny it. Second of all, it’s been an honor to serve! [Laughter] Look, last year I had a senior colleague say, “Your problem, Conrad, is you are too solutions-oriented. You have never understood that this is political theater.” I thought, Wow, it is time for me to leave. It really got started in ’94, and it’s gotten more corrosive. Speaker Gingrich had a role here because he saw the only way to be successful in taking over the House was to really bring it down.
DAVIS: Perhaps I have a view that isn’t quite as optimistic of the past. I serve on Ways and Means with some members who reminded me of the halcyon days when Dan Rostenkowski didn’t recognize Republicans, and if his Democratic members were too audacious and wanted to amend the bill, he would adjourn and write the bill with the staff in the library.
BBW: Congressman Ackerman, you’ve been here 30 years. Can you define comity as it existed when you arrived versus how it exists now?
ACKERMAN: Your premise is that comity exists now. It may not be entirely accurate. It used to be you had real friends on the other side of the aisle. It’s not like that anymore. Society has changed. The public is to blame as well. I think the people have gotten dumber. I don’t know that I would’ve said that out loud pre-my announcement that I was going to be leaving. [Laughter] But I think that’s true. I mean everything has changed. The media has changed. We now give broadcast licenses to philosophies instead of people. People get confused and think there is no difference between news and entertainment. People who project themselves as journalists on television don’t know the first thing about journalism. They are just there stirring up a hockey game.
BBW: We’ve talked about obstacles to bipartisanship … [To Davis and Ackerman] The two of you have served in the House for the last eight years. How many times have you met or talked before tonight?
ACKERMAN: We have seen each other.
DAVIS: We’ve seen each other. I will say though, I have a lot of [Democrat] friends. Steve Israel from New York is a good personal friend. Joe Donnelly. Jim McDermott …
ACKERMAN: In my faith, we used to say, “Some of my best friends are …”
DAVIS: But understanding position versus person is very critical. [McDermott] and I have a joke. Remember the old Warner Brothers cartoon of the sheepdog and the wolf, Sam and Ralph, that would walk with their lunch pails to the pasture, clock in, and then do mortal combat all day. Jim and I were on the floor one night having a very spirited debate. As I was walking off the floor there was a slap on my back and he looked and said, “Just another day at the office.”
ACKERMAN: It’s a different era. People more than ever since I can remember are concerned about being out of step and out of line with their political party and won’t cross over. There is nobody, man or woman, who wants to be left out, and people are fearful of that. People are fearful of their leadership as well.
BBW: Senator Snowe, you’ve deviated from your party more than just about anyone. What is it really like when you go against the leadership?
SNOWE: People within your party used to understand that it is essential. People have to represent either their district or their state on the issues that matter and take those positions accordingly. But today there is no reward for that. In fact, there is this party adherence, and as a result if we don’t get past the party platforms that are offered by either side of the political aisle, then we can’t solve the problem. And we are not transcending those differences. That is a huge departure from the past.
ACKERMAN: You can compromise between good, better, and best, and you can compromise between bad and worse and terrible. But you can’t compromise between good and evil. And now people look at the other side as a completely different kind of animal and say, “They are taking the country down the road to purgatory.” It’s complete intolerance.
SNOWE: The American people have to really weigh in and demonstrate that there is a political reward and incentive for working across party lines.
BBW: All of you have contradicted your party at some point. Is there bitterness in the halls, or pettiness about it?
DAVIS: I have not had that problem and I was in several fundamental policy disagreements. You know, the more interesting one, I have to say, probably from my roots in the military, was the first time I said no to the president regarding the Social Security proposals that were being floated back when I came in, in early 2005. I think if people know their compass and there is respect—I know certainly in our office we have gone out of our way to build relationships to work aggressively on policy. I have seen no retribution, at least in my personal walk.
ACKERMAN: It depends on how big the issue is and what the issue is. The dangerous territory that we have somehow wandered into is there are some people on my side who think the issue is always protecting the president for historic reasons, and I have seen a lot of people on the other side whose issue is defeating the president and not allowing him a victory no matter what the issue is.
BBW: What harms the process more, the media or money?
CONRAD: Money is a huge problem. There are really two reasons I decided not to run again. One is I really wanted to come here to do big things, and we haven’t been doing big things. The second was I saw super PACs coming and I knew as a centrist who was not particularly supported very strongly by any group, I could have [a super PAC] roll in and just dump a load of money on me and I’m not going to be able to answer.
DAVIS: I don’t believe we should check speech by any measure or merit, but left unchecked, you could end up with the 21st century version of Tammany Hall, where you have a small number of political bosses who control the flow of money around the country, limiting the discourse and debate for personal advantage, whether left, right, or center.
SNOWE: I regret that the Supreme Court rolled back 100 years of case law and precedence. It was my initial provision in the McCain-Feingold bill that was struck down a second time in the court. But then obviously they went quantum leaps further, unfortunately, and unraveled all the case law, allowing corporations and unions to dump unlimited money into these campaigns.
What Kent says is true. Because we are trying to build what I describe as a sensible center, you don’t have a base in terms of raising money. You are almost always confined to the MSNBC or the Fox News prism. That’s the way I describe it because it’s true. People see you in one channel or another and nothing in between.
ACKERMAN: We are probably the only ones who watch both Fox and MSNBC. The public watches either one or the other, and they watch one or the other hoping that the guys on my side will kill the guys on the other side. You can accuse any and every one of us, at least at times, of going for the ratings and doing and saying things that are popular or to try to raise more money so that we can get reelected. The media does that in spades. They really do.
BBW: Do you feel like a character on a reality show?
ACKERMAN: I have always been a character on a reality show. [Laughter]
BBW: There’s been a slightly negative tone so far. Tell us what actually works about Washington?
CONRAD: At its best moments, the Senate is a place where people can come together. I have been part of Bowles-Simpson, been part of the Group of Six, spent in the last two years hundreds of hours in small rooms with Republicans and Democrats, and in both of those cases we were able to come together.
I will never forget the morning of [the Bowles-Simpson] vote. I called my staff in and went around the room and asked them what would their recommendation be to me in my vote. Every single one recommended I vote no. On almost every page of that document, there were things I hated. I told my staff that the only thing worse than being for this is being against it. That would be worse.
ACKERMAN: Washington has the ability to attract some of the brightest, hardest-working people in the country. That works. The problem is when you have some of the brightest, most hardworking people in the country who become a–holes. [Laughter]
SNOWE: Individual members are hard-working people that work to represent their constituents and move heaven and earth to do so. Unfortunately, you know, in the Senate we miniaturize the process. I mean, we have the ability to solve the problems that are facing this country. They are not easy, but they haven’t been easy in the past. But we’re not even willing to grapple with those issues. I mean, I have never seen anything quite like it, to be honest with you, in my 34 years.
The debt ceiling debacle really was the height, I think, of failure. It certainly sent tremors throughout this country. It was political and financial brinkmanship at its worst.
It’s not as if we couldn’t have addressed the issue early on in January of 2011 when the initial date was March 31. But we deferred it to August 2, till the 11th hour. Imagine what it did to the American people. There is a huge disconnect between Washington elected officials and the rest of America, and the rest of America knows it. That’s why we have whatever it is, a 9 percent approval rating, a 17 percent approval rating.
BBW: I’m going to give you one magic power. As you leave here, you can change one thing about the legislative process, about the federal government, anything you want. What would you do?
CONRAD: I would do away with super PACs. I think it’s a cancer.
DAVIS: It is critical that those who are being regulated in various constituencies—be it the business community, the job creators, or other institutions—need to be an active part of that dialogue. Great Britain revolutionized parts of their regulatory process by actually bringing the people who were going to be regulated to the table and suddenly found that they could solve the problems at a lot lower cost by, again, going back to the thing that tends to be most uninteresting, particularly in cable news, and looking at the actual process. Solve the problem or prevent the problem from happening.
SNOWE: We are not doing our jobs, frankly. If I was in charge, I would be canceling recess and getting everybody here and start focusing on the issues that matter to this country because we are at a tipping point.
Legislating isn’t easy on these complex matters. You can’t just instantaneously come up with solutions to problems. Somehow we have dumbed down the process. Somehow we think, “Oh gosh, are you for or against?” Well, geez, it just came up. Can I give it some thought? Can I think about it? Can I read about it? Maybe I should learn more about the facts on the issue. But there is no time, no deference paid to thoughtfulness in the legislative process today. We have got to get back to spending some time here to get the job done for the American people. That’s what it’s all about. The American people understand it. They see it because they see on TV on C-SPAN and they recognize, “Well, where are they?”
ACKERMAN: Inasmuch as it’s a magical power that you are bestowing I would do away with hypocrisy. [Laughter] Looking at it a little bit more realistically, we have to try to find some practical approaches. I came here so many years ago as a rather liberal kid from New York City. I’m still pretty liberal. I changed a little bit on foreign policy and worldview, but I came here as a pacifist. I disagreed with Ronald Reagan, who was the first president that I served with, but I didn’t want him to fail. This pacifist wound up voting for war under the guidance of two Republican presidents because we only have one president at a time, and if he fails, my country fails. That is not acceptable. The Congress, both houses, both parties have to act like grown-ups and say that this is about policy. If it is about the presidency or if it’s about the majority in my House or your House, then it is never going to be about policy. Somebody is going to have to—not the four of us, but somebody is going to have to walk that back a few steps.