When I concluded that political polarization in Congress would not diminish in the short term, I decided not to seek a fourth term in the US Senate. I am taking my fight for bipartisanship outside the institution. Congress responds to pressure from citizens. We must act.
The fundamental danger with today’s political environment in Washington is that Americans are mostly hearing from only two voices – the far right and the far left. These armies of divisiveness would have people believe they are the only two choices. Yet, when neither camp can politically achieve all of what it seeks, the only means for forging solutions is principled compromise.
That’s why it is imperative that the media go beyond either/or propositions that lead only to gridlock. Rather, by listening to those with whom we disagree and understanding that common-ground options exist, we will discover that our problems are not, in fact, insurmountable. We, as citizens, can mobilize for moderation.
When I decided last year not to seek a fourth term in the US Senate, I had arrived at an unfortunate conclusion: that the excessive political polarization in Congress would not diminish in the short term. As a result, I wanted to take my fight for bipartisanship in a different direction – from outside the institution. I wanted to harness my insider’s knowledge to rally a charge against the hyper-partisanship that is preventing solutions to our monumental challenges.
Now here we are, in 2013, and incredibly Congress has wasted nine more months in the life of America.
It has failed to pass legislation to create jobs or spur the sluggish economy. An overdue overhaul of the byzantine and uncompetitive tax code is on indefinite hold. Congress faces another showdown at the legislative “OK corral” as it approaches the latest debt ceiling deadline. And for more than four consecutive years, lawmakers have failed to agree on a federal budget – totally irresponsible given the debt that threatens America’s economic well-being.
The reality is that Congress retains the same potential for solving problems as at any point in its history, whether passing the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, or welfare reform in 1996 – both under divided government. What is required now is increased bipartisanship and consensus-building to revive such problem solving.
That’s why I have written a book, “Fighting for Common Ground: How We Can Fix the Stalemate in Congress.” I have also been speaking to audiences across the country to assure Americans that it hasn’t always been this way and that it is possible to bridge the divide to defeat the machinery of partisanship.
Attaining that victory is critical, as I have witnessed through the power of bipartisan teamwork. Shortly after I was elected to the Senate in 1994, West Virginia’s Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller and I teamed up to champion an amendment that launched the so-called E-Rate program – a landmark initiative ensuring every library and classroom in America would be wired to the Internet.
In another example, the late Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts and I co-wrote the watershed Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act – the 2008 law to stop insurance companies and employers from denying or dropping coverage based on genetic tests, so individuals wouldn’t forgo those potentially life-saving exams. GINA has been called the first major civil rights act of the 21st century.
These kinds of bipartisan partnerships are essential, because only when lawmakers minimize the political barriers can they maximize the power of the Congress.
Yet Congress has demonstrated zero evidence that it will effectively reform from within. Why? Because the forces of polarization are well organized and well funded. They provide plenty of incentives for incendiary rhetoric and thwarting action. We as citizens must now take charge to alter those incentives.
In our representative democracy, we ultimately get the government we demand. We must therefore provide a political reward at the ballot box for those politicians who work toward common ground, and a political penalty for those who don’t. As the late Sen. Warren Rudman from New Hampshire once said, “Politics is too important to be left to the politicians!”
I understand it’s an uphill battle. What is necessary is a counterweight to the extremism.
At the Bipartisan Policy Center, the Washington think tank where I’m a senior fellow, we have established the Common Ground Project to harness the power of social media just as the agents of division have. You can find out more at bipartisanpolicy.org, where we are rallying a new movement of citizens working as a team, serving as a rapid-response, real-time catalyst for political reform. And my committee, Olympiaslist.org, assists candidates, regardless of party affiliation, who are committed to bipartisanship.
As citizens, we can also effect vital changes to our political system. Urging more “open primaries” in which voters need not declare a party affiliation will produce candidates for the general election who are less extreme. Establishing commissions independent of state legislatures to draw lines for US House districts would diminish the political homogenization of voting districts. Those predictable districts have helped solidify legislative logjams. These and other practical measures are well within our grasp, and, in some cases, are already being done.
America is a can-do country infused with a can-do spirit. Now it is up to us to seize the reins and insist on elected officials who are willing to take risks working with each other, rather than against each other. The future of our country depends on it.
Olympia Snowe is a former Republican senator from Maine.
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