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Olympia Snowe departs with pious baloney

Senator Olympia Snowe speaks to reporters during a news conference

Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, shocked Washington by denouncing the partisan polarization of Congress and backed her words by announcing her retirement from a Senate seat she could easily have retained. Over the weekend, she explained her reasons in a Washington Post Op Ed (but I’m linking to the version that ran on Reader Supported News because the look on her face in the mugshot that ran with that one captures a woman who is visibly tired, sad and fed up).

Of course, Snowe knows volumes more than I do about what’s wrong with Washington in general and the Senate in particular. But I was aghast at the way she presents the issue in this piece — especially her effort to align her frustrations with today’s Senate with a simultaneously worshipful and erroneous version of the intentions of the framers of the Constitution. Here’s Snowe:

Simply put, the Senate is not living up to what the Founding Fathers envisioned.

During the Federal Convention of 1787, James Madison wrote in his Notes of  Debates that ‘the use of the Senate is to consist in its proceedings with more coolness, with more system, and with more wisdom, than the popular branch.’ Indeed, the Founding Fathers intended the Senate to serve as an institutional check that ensures all voices are heard and considered, because while our constitutional democracy is premised on majority rule, it is also grounded in a commitment to minority rights.

Yet more than 200 years later, the greatest deliberative body in human history is not living up to its billing. The Senate of today routinely jettisons regular order, as evidenced by the body’s failure to pass a budget for more than 1,000 days; serially legislates by political brinkmanship, as demonstrated by the debt-ceiling debacle of August that should have been addressed the previous January; and habitually eschews full debate and an open amendment process in favor of competing, up-or-down, take-it-or-leave-it proposals. We witnessed this again in December with votes on two separate proposals for a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution.

As Ronald Brownstein recently observed in National Journal, Congress is becoming more like a parliamentary system — where everyone simply votes with their party and those in charge employ every possible tactic to block the other side. But that is not what America is all about, and it’s not what the Founders intended. In fact, the Senate’s requirement of a supermajority to pass significant legislation encourages its members to work in a bipartisan fashion.

There’s a lot of “pious baloney” packed in there. Let’s start with the last one first. The “supermajority requirement” to which Snowe refers is the filibuster rule, which enables 41 senators to prevent a final vote on a bill even if it has the support of the other 59, has passed the House and  would be signed by the president. As filibuster defenders often do, Snowe strongly implies that the filibuster is a gift from the framers, which it isn’t.  It is merely a Senate rule, created by accident, and if the Senate wanted to get rid of it, there is no constitutional barrier.

The filibuster

Snowe implies that the filibuster is designed to force bipartisan compromise. Rubbish. It wasn’t designed at all, but the way it functions in today’s Senate facilitates the very behavior that Snowe decries in the rest of the piece.

Snowe enlists James Madison’s notes from the Constitutional Convention which suggest that the Senate was meant to be wiser than the House and serve as a check on “the more popular branch.” This is, of course, a reference to the fact that the framers did not intend for the Senate to be directly elected but, rather, buffered from direct concern for the support of the unwashed. The mostly wealthy and educated framers were leery of too much democracy, which is why of the four power centers that they created (House, Senate, president, Supreme Court) only the House was to be directly elected.

Perhaps there’s wisdom in limiting the direct influence of the voters on national policy, but I’m not sure Snowe means to celebrate that view. It seems she just wanted to get Madison into the piece and imply that he would be on her side.

Of course, the framers did not intend to encourage bipartisanship, since they envisioned a nation that would not have political parties (although parties started forming before the ink was dry on the framers’ work). To me, the fact that the framers were imagining a permanently non-partisan (not bipartisan – non-partisan) political system should be among the biggest deterrents to those who want to invoke the framers’ “intentions” to solve problems in a world that never resembled their vision.

The parliamentary system

Lastly, Snowe invokes the parliamentary system as a foil, a system where everyone votes the party line “and those in charge employ every possible tactic to block the other side.” I hope she wasn’t just trying to play the let’s-not-be-like-a-bunch-of-sissified-Europeans card, but her analysis is seriously flawed.

In general, a parliamentary system has one powerful legislative house and a chief executive who is both a member of the House and the leader of the majority party (or majority coalition). This system makes it much more likely that the majority will rule and be able to pass its bills. The parliament is entirely elected at one time (unlike our system in which the Senate consists of a class elected two years ago, another four years ago, and another six) which actually (contrary to the impression Snowe suggests) means that prime ministers are much more likely to enact the legislative agenda on which they were elected than are U.S. presidents.

Don’t blame (or praise) the framers for the filibuster, Sen. Snowe. However, the founders are responsible for  the division-of-powers and staggered-elections and multiple-coequal-houses system they designed, which is certainly a big part of the reason for Washington’s dysfunction.

As a small (but not senatorial) courtesy, I’ll give Snowe the last word, from her op-ed:

But whenever Americans have set our minds to tackling enormous problems, we have met with tremendous success. And I am convinced that, if the people of our nation raise their collective voices, we can effect a renewal of the art of legislating — and restore the luster of a Senate that still has the potential of achieving monumental solutions to our nation’s most urgent challenges. I look forward to helping the country raise those voices to support the Senate returning to its deserved status and stature — but from outside the institution.

Comments (18)

  1. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 03/05/2012 - 12:46 pm.


    It’s too bad that some journalist never got around to asking Senator Snowe by which measure or point of view did she consider herself a republican. I’d be curious to know.

  2. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 03/05/2012 - 01:00 pm.

    Parliament and the filibuster

    Thanks, Eric. Good piece.

    There’s that thing about a silk purse and a sow’s ear… Draping the filibuster in a golden aura of framers’ “intentions” and the Constitution is pure hogwash. It’s a Senate rule, created as a blocking tactic, and there’s nothing sacred (or Constitutional) about it. The Senate could get rid of it tomorrow if Senators wanted to. They obviously don’t. At least, not yet.

    And yes, parliamentary systems operate much differently than ours, and usually much more efficiently from the standpoint of carrying out the will of the public. The elected leader usually gets to implement his/her program, with the support of the majority also elected at the same time. Failure to do so, in fact, often leads to new elections, with different people coming to power. This is such an attractive idea that The New Republic has, for as long as I can remember, pushed for Constitutional revisions with every presidential election cycle that would turn the U.S. into a parliamentary democracy. We all have our blinders and delusions, and the idea that Americans would voluntarily give up our current dysfunctional system for something “European” (try to read the word with the appropriate sneer of the naturally robust and superior American disdainfully considering something… French) is The New Republic’s delusion. Sure, it might work better, but it ain’t gonna happen…

  3. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 03/05/2012 - 01:10 pm.

    A politician

    to the end.
    But she was a good one.
    I’d rather remember her by her record than have her be known primarily for her valedictory.

  4. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 03/05/2012 - 01:54 pm.

    Sen. Snowe joines Sen. Leiberman’s caucus of the disaffected.

    One difference any thoughtful observer will note between the right and left extremes is that Sen. Snowe never had to deal with the outright hatred from the right that Senator Lieberman did from the left.

    I wish her well on her future endevours.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 03/05/2012 - 03:34 pm.

      Hatred vs. a demand for ideological purity

      See Tester, Dennis, comment of, supra.

    • Submitted by Steve Sundberg on 03/05/2012 - 04:15 pm.

      Outright hatred?

      Well, gosh, Thomas. I guess that explains why Sen. Lieberman chose not to run for re-election. Oh, wait! Lieberman stills serves in the Senates?! As a Democrat?!!! Damn those lefties and their leftie anger!

      Then, again. Maybe if Olympia had done what Joe did (think: Quisling), she’d have received a fair bit of virulence from her GOP party colleagues, too.

      • Submitted by Hal Davis on 03/06/2012 - 01:01 am.


        “Then, again. Maybe if Olympia had done what Joe did (think: Quisling), she’d have received a fair bit of virulence from her GOP party colleagues, too.”

        Wow. Such a casual use of a word that means Nazi-loving traitor. A mite Suttonesque. And the last Minnesotan user of the word has been shown the door by his apparent non-Quisling fellow party members.

        Perhaps Snowe had a point.

    • Submitted by Robert Gauthier on 03/05/2012 - 09:08 pm.


      And insulting anyone who does not exactly parrot your viewpoint is supportive? If you have ever been to Maine, she is a fairly typical politician from there. They have had moderate Republicns, back when they still existed, and
      conservative Democrats. Actually a pretty eclectic state with a long history of good politics. Like Minnesota used to be before this bipartisan dry rot we have.

  5. Submitted by RB Holbrook on 03/05/2012 - 03:33 pm.

    A fine time to speak up

    It’s always easy to raise courageous arguments when you’re on your way out the door. Why didn’t Senator Snowe launch her tirade before, when she may have been able to do something? The answer is, she doesn’t really seem interested in doing anything. The system we have in place now is just fine, just what the Fouders wanted, but . . . can’t you fellows just learn to play nice, so I can burnish my reputation as I quit this circus?

  6. Submitted by Joe Musich on 03/05/2012 - 07:01 pm.

    good question ?

    And what is the reason that our beloved media does not ask the question being ask here, “why not end the filibuster? “

  7. Submitted by Robert Gauthier on 03/05/2012 - 09:01 pm.

    Seriously, seriously

    Maybe it was all votes with her caucus and years of being a Republican. Just guessing.

  8. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 03/06/2012 - 09:32 am.

    Ending the filibuster

    (which originally meant ‘pirate’)
    would require 60 votes to override the filibuster.

  9. Submitted by Logan Foreman on 03/06/2012 - 10:11 am.

    Don’t disagree with your comments on her article, Eric, but she was an excellent Senator for a state that generally has rational political views. Plenty of other Senators who say far more stupid things for you to comment on Eric.

  10. Submitted by Chris Long on 03/07/2012 - 06:55 am.

    I appologize for not knowing your position on this issue

    Eric, based on this OpEd piece, I take it you are against the filibuster? You believe all votes in the Senate should be simple majority?

    I am not going to research your past OpEd pieces, but tell me, were you against Bush/Cheney when they proposed the “nuclear option?”

    Because Obama, Clinton and Biden were all against it. So were a bipartisan group of 14 senators, seven of whom were Republicans who voted against the nuclear option and so ensured the preservation of the filibuster

    They all claimed that the filibuster was an important protector of minority rights.

    But you don’t think so. Interersting.

    Of course, now that Obama used reconciliation to bypass the filibuster, all of a sudden Democrats say the filibuster is evil.

    History will not fail to notice that the first African-American president quashed minority rights to jam his signature legislation through the Senate. It will also not fail to notice that you supported it.

    This talk of eliminating the filibuster is just a way of covering those tracks.

    Stop it. Stop trying to elimnate an important protector of minority rights just to make your actions appear less pernicioius.

    Regardless who invented it, the filibuster is an important protector of minority rights and MUST itself be protected.

    • Submitted by Pat Berg since 2011 on 03/07/2012 - 08:04 am.

      So what ever happened . . . .

      to the idea of the filibuster actually requiring a Senator to continuously stand and continue talking in order to maintain it? Yes – that’s a difficult thing to do – but I was of the impression that that was at the core of what a filibuster was all about. It was SUPPOSED to be difficult. That’s part of what was SUPPOSED to keep it rare. Rare, but still available in the event a minority member was passionate enough about their position to take on the arduous task of filibustering.

      Nowadays they just say “I’m gonna filibuster!” and that’s all it takes – which has effectively changed the number of votes needed to get something through. And when – and how – did this happen?

      I’m not against the filibuster. I just think it should go back to being a difficult enough thing to do that it remains the exception, rather than the rule.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 03/07/2012 - 09:50 am.

      Header says it all

      First of all, white males are not a minority.
      Second, many of the filibustero proposals (including Eric’s, I believe) call for a modification of the rules, not a total elimination.
      For example: limiting the duration of a filibuster to two days.
      Eliminating the ‘hold’ where a single Senator can effectively table a motion indefinitely.
      Do your research — you’ll find others.

      • Submitted by Chris Long on 03/08/2012 - 05:39 am.

        Um, do YOUR research

        Here we go.

        Liberals and facts/math don’t mix.

        First, I never said that the minority in question was white males. It’s amazing how quickly liberals resort to sexism and racism. This wide-spread, endemic racism among American Liberals is one of the factors that makes 21st Century American Liberalism such a close sybling to Facism.

        Second, according to the Statistical Abstract of the United States (, there are 281 million Americans of whom 195 million are non-hispanic whites. About 49.8% of those are males.

        That means that about 98 million of 281 million Americans are white males, making them a minority.

        Next time, stay in school for third grade math and do YOUR research.

  11. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 03/09/2012 - 11:11 am.

    I’m not snowed by Snow.

    We need to kill the current filibuster rules, they’ve paralyzed our government.

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