The Senate Doesn't Live Up to the Beltway's Fever Dream of Bipartisanship? Say It Ain't Snowe!


Olympia Snowe has served in the Senate as a Republican for 17 years, but it's never been clear what, exactly, she stands for, except perhaps the right to bask eternally in meaningless but highly Senatorial deliberations. Snowe is a longtime favorite of Washington's bipartisanship-first crowd, and has maintained her image accordingly. The most consistent feature of this crowd, besides a constant willingness to lament in extremely high-profile media outlets how little influence it has on the national debate, is a prioritization of cross-party consensus to the exclusion of all else, including substantive policy preferences.

So it is with Snowe's Washington Post op-ed explaining her decision to retire. Snowe is saddened that 200 years after its founding "the greatest deliberative body in history is not living up to its billing." It "routinely jettisons regular order" and "serially legislates by political brinkmanship." It has become more like a parliamentary body, where legislators merely toe the party line, which is not, Snowe says, what the nation's architects had in mind. "In fact," she writes, "the Senate's requirement of a supermajority to pass significant legislation encourages its members to work in a bipartisan fashion."

Although the dreaded B-word appears only twice, the Beltway-utopian ideal of bipartisanship runs throughout the piece, with Snowe later arguing that playing nice with members of opposing parties can lead to political rewards. "For change to occur," she says, "our leaders must understand that there is not only strength in compromise, courage in conciliation and honor in consensus-building — but also a political reward for following these tenets."

But what about better policy? There, Snowe has less to say: Aside from a brief complaint about the Senate's ongoing failure to pass a budget (which she treats mostly as a failure symbolic of the lack of consensus), she makes no mention of any particular policy agenda, or the substantive choices that legislators must make, indicating only that she would prefer that whatever policies are enacted, they are passed with the support of both parties. Snowe's piece is a near-parody of the inside-Washington bipartisanship fetish, and a remarkably pure defense of Senatorial power and prerogative as goods unto themselves; it's process over policy, appearance over results. It's empty of substance, and proudly so. "I certainly don't have all the answers," she admits. I'm not sure she has any answers at all.