By Jackie Ogburn
Describing herself as “a recovering politician,” Sen. Olympia Snowe, former Republican senator and representative from Maine, Monday described the polarization in the nation’s capital as an “unfortunate and regrettable chapter in our political history.”
Snowe gave the Crown Lecture in Ethics at the Sanford School, drawing on her experience as the first and only woman to serve in both houses of a state legislature and both chambers of Congress. She contrasted the bipartisan nature of government in the past with today’s extreme partisanship and dysfunction.
The essence of public service is to solve problems, she said.
“It stands in stark contrast to today, where it seems that the campaigning never stops and the governing never begins,” she said.
Breaking glass ceilings
When she arrived in the House of Representatives, there were only 17 women in Congress. “We were so severely underrepresented that we could ill-afford to draw partisan lines in the sand,” she said.
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Sen. Olympia Snowe gave the Crown Lecture in Ethics about the current climate of extreme political polarization at the Sanford School on March 26.
She co-chaired the Congressional Caucus for Women’s Issues for 10 years with U.S. Rep. Pat Schroeder (D-Colo.) The caucus focused on issues important to women, such as family medical leave, which took seven years to pass, child support payments, inclusion of women in medical trials and more.
“That same bipartisan spirit existed when I arrived in the Senate in 1995,” she said.
Snowe worked across the aisle on issues such as the Child Tax Credit and the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act, “first civil rights bill of the 21th century.” Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy was her partner in drafting that bill, and he graciously placed her name first, contrary to custom where the chair of the committee’s name is first.
She described her shock and disappointment at the debt ceiling debacle in 2011, which resulted in the downgrading of the country’s triple A credit rating, a disaster that she ranked with Watergate and the Great Recession.
One of the largest ethical failings of Congress in recent years is its failure to address rising inequality and the country’s slow economic growth, she said.
The excessive polarization in Congress was a key factor in her decision to not run for re-election in 2012. She decided to fight the problem from the outside, and joined the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, D.C.
The Bipartisan Policy Center proposes solutions such as restraining gerrymandering, increased voter participation, and disclosure of dark money, which was estimated at $1.4 billion dollars in 2016.
She believes that the constant pressure of fundraising contributes to polarization, as does the limited congressional calendar, less than 160 working days for each chamber. With a short week, “by Thursday, everyone is smelling jet fumes,” and preparing to hit the road again.
“How can we place Congress back on track?” she asked. “We are a representative democracy and we can get the government we want. It’s important to provide political rewards at the ballot box to those who search for common ground and penalties for those who don’t.”
“I urge you to chart a course of compromise, consensus-building and conciliation, because there is no other way…. You have to accept the fact that you don’t have a monopoly on all the good ideas,” she said.
The Crown Lecture in Ethics is made possible by a gift from Lester Crown and the Crown family. Its purpose is to bring speakers to campus to discuss compelling ethical issues in the fields of art, science, medicine, business and policy. The lecture was co-sponsored by the Sanford School of Public Policy and POLIS, and is part of the yearlong centennial celebration of the late Terry Sanford, Duke’s president from 1970-1985.