Retiring U.S. Sen. Snowe: End gridlock by rewarding compromise

The NewsHour on Wednesday tapped retiring moderate U.S. Senators Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) and Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) to discuss congressional dysfunction. Interviewed by Senior Correspondent Gwen Ifill, the two provided a free-wheeling inside view of what has happened over the last couple of decades on the Hill. They touched on the roll played by the media, no-tax pledges, no-compromise candidate platforms and sacred-cow entitlement programs. They also offered suggestions on what they would do, if they could, to address the gridlock that poll after poll suggests is detested by the vast majority of American citizens.

Watch Retiring Sens. Snowe, Bingaman: Political Center Is Fading on PBS. See more from PBS NewsHour.

A condensed version of the exchange:

Ifill: Are things irreconcilable?

Snowe: People have to step back and say, What’s the purpose of the United States Senate? What’s the objective of serving in public office. I happen to believe it’s problem solving. That I’ve come here to solve problems. That’s why I’ve been in public office for virtually 40 years. I believe we have an obligation, a responsibility to address the issues that come before your state or your country.

Does it seem to you like things are stuck?

Bingaman: Well… the whole country has become much more polarized politically. You have– the media is polarized. If you are of one point of view, you have one channel to watch. If you are of another point of view, you have a different channel to watch. I think that’s being reflected in the Congress. The Congress is more polarized. You have a lot of people running on a platform that they won’t compromise once they get to Washington They will stick to their guns. And of course our system of government was designed so that you gotta compromise.

Is it that people won’t compromise because they can’t or won’t compromise, or because, politically, they can’t afford to compromise?

Snowe: … People say to me, Why won’t you work together for the common good of the country? Now, the whole issue unfortunately with compromise is that people view it with disdain. It’s viewed as a capitulation of your principles. It’s not.

Sen. Snowe, I hereby grant you a magic wand. What’s the fix?

Snowe: A return to transparency and accountability would really build confidence in the integrity of the outcome of the legislation. We don’t have that anymore. It’s a closed door. It either comes to the floor without going through a committee. It’s crafted behind closed doors. We have up or down votes. I mean it’s sort of similar to the House. I feel like I’m back in the House. We have up or down votes. Have an open amendment process. Have people air their views.

And, sometimes, when you have that opportunity, you might not agree on everything in the package, which you might not because — if it’s a big package — but, at the end of the day, so, you know, I’ve made my voice heard on behalf of my constituents, and the ultimate result is something that I now can support, even if it’s not everything that I wanted.

Doesn’t the dysfunction have a chance to take greater hold with your absence?

Snowe: Well, you know, my concern is that it’s not going to change on the short term, and that’s what I had to consider at where I am in my own life…

I am concerned that the lines have drawn. I mean, the analyses that have been done recently about ratings of various — of all of us as senators, whether conservative or liberal and so on, back in 1982, there were 58 senators that came between the most conservative Democrat and the most liberal Republican. Today, there are none.

So there’s not much of a center, and we have to decide that the institution has to not only solve problems, but the American people have to give rewards to those people and individuals who are willing to work across party lines. There are no political rewards for that today.

The discussion echoed the question Daily Show host Jon Stewart in 2004 famously took to Crossfire, the CNN cable debate show that folded soon after Stewart appeared and told the hosts their predictable ginned-up left-right debates were doing a disservice to the country. “Just stop,” he said. Video of the exchange went viral and Americans applauded Stewart for articulating an exhaustion with the way cable news- and talk radio-style political theater seemed to be overtaking political reality.

In the short time he has been in office, Colorado U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet has made news for his evocative railing against the do-nothing anachronistic nature of the Senate and has taken to the floor on occasion to desperately plead for action.

[ Image: Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, NewsHour screengrab. ]