Olympia Snowe’s last act: Filibuster reform?

June 20, 2012

Olympia Snowe is on her way out of Congress. But before she leaves, the Maine Republican may try to do something to fix the political deadlock and dysfunction that drove her to retire in the first place.

“I’ve been sorting through the aspects, procedurally, that contribute to locking down the process,” Snowe said. First and foremost: abuse of the filibuster.


Sen. Olympia Snowe, shown in January 2010. (AP)

In her final months in office, Snowe is now talking to some of her Senate colleagues — Democrats, she says — about what, if any, procedural reforms could deter the chamber from turning routine votes into weapons of mass political destruction. She explained her rationale Monday at a Bloomberg panel for soon-departing politicians.

The legislators cast the blame all around, from the media to super PACs. Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.) also faulted the public (“people have gotten dumber”) and Washington’s corrosive effect on people’s attitudes. “The ultimate good thing about Washington is its ability to attract some of brightest, hardest-working people in the country,” said Ackerman, who’s been in the House since 1983. “The problem is when you have some of brightest, most hard-working people in the country become a-------.”

But Snowe and Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), the two departing senators at the event, both pinned the blame squarely on a more arcane factor: Senate procedure. “The problem is we’re not going through regular order in the U.S. Senate,” Snowe said. The problems start from the very earliest stages of a bill, she explained, with party leadership often bypassing the traditional committee process. But the bigger problem was the abuse of the filibuster: The minority side’s use of the filibuster has “increased exponentially, especially compared to the last three Congresses,” Snowe lamented.

Snowe doesn’t think the majority has been blameless, either. The majority has its own procedural tactic to prevent the minority from offering up amendments on legislation — known as “filling the amendment tree.” The intention is to prevent the minority from abusing the legislative process by offering up deliberately embarrassing amendments or trying to prolong the debate. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has done so as recently as last week to break the logjam on the farm bill. But Snowe believes the tactic can itself be abused, effectively making the legislative process undemocratic and “denying millions of people their representation,” she concludes.

Both tactics turn a legislative process dependent on consensus-building into “perpetual campaigning,” she explains, subjecting members to the political agenda of their party leaders. As such, Snowe says she’s faced unprecedented political retribution for breaking from the ranks, being primaried for the first time. “I’m all of a sudden consigned to a limited quarter of the Republican Party,” she says.

Snowe is now looking at ways that Senate procedure could be reformed to help alleviate partisan gridlock. “I’m doing some research on how cloture has been used” since it was put into effect in 1917, she explains. In classic Snowe form, her hope is to try to find a procedural fix that would also be a compromise between the minority and the majority — “so that neither gets the upper hand,” she explains.

That’s always been the biggest stumbling block in past attempts at filibuster reform: The majority might complain about minority abuse of the filibuster today, but their party could be in the minority tomorrow and want that additional protection. The only politically tenable fix that would “do something for both sides ... a procedural mechanism so that neither gets the upper hand,” Snowe said.

Snowe didn’t go so far as to suggest that she’d introduce legislation for filibuster reform. But among the soon-to-be-departed, she has some company. Conrad heartily agreed with Snowe that the filibuster would be the one thing he would change about Washington. “The process just breaks down of its own weight and can’t get to a conclusion,” he said.

At this point, however, the most Snowe may be able to do is hand off a filibuster reform proposal to a colleague willing to forge ahead. And the path forward from there is murky at best. I caught up with Conrad after the event to ask him what would need to happen for the filibuster to be fixed. “I’m not sure I know,” he said. “I’m really not sure I know.” Then he walked away.

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