PORTLAND — The U.S. Senate has become so paralyzed by partisan posturing that it cannot pass significant legislation, Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, said Friday.
Snowe, who has served in Congress since 1978, said in an interview with MaineToday Media’s editorial board that she has never seen a legislative body as ineffective as the current Senate.
“Unfortunately, everything is concentrated in political messaging, and the art of governing and legislating has been virtually lost,” she said. “And I have never witnessed a session like the one we have had in the United States Senate, where for all practical purposes legislation has come to a standstill.”
Snowe cited not only the recent political brinksmanship over raising the federal debt ceiling — a battle that she said could easily have been averted by President Obama and congressional leaders months ago — but the entire legislative session, which in her view has largely been a waste of time.
From January to July, she noted, the Senate spent 45 percent of its time on “morning business,” which consists of quorum calls and floor speeches on matters unrelated to the deliberation of pending legislation, according to an analysis by the Congressional Research Service, a nonpartisan research division of Congress.
As measured by votes taken, nominees approved and bills made into laws, the 112th Congress is on pace to be one of the least productive in recent history, according to a Los Angles Times analysis that Snowe cited.
She said the current Congress is less productive than even the “do-nothing Congress” that President Harry Truman railed against in 1948.
Rather than seeking common ground to solve the nation’s big problems, she said, the two parties are vying to outmaneuver each other and please their political bases. She said the focus is on reciting talking points rather than drafting legislation.
“Everybody is trying to orchestrate their political positions to score political points,” she said.
“And you would have thought in the aftermath of the election that we would have begun a new session with a different tone, laying the basis and the groundwork for rebuilding the economy and concentrating on jobs.”
The proliferation of media outlets, 24/7 news coverage and the immediacy of the Internet have contributed to the problem, she said.
When she was first elected to the House, she said, there were significant numbers of conservative Democrats from the South and moderates from the Northeast and Midwest, and both groups built a coalition to work with President Reagan to develop a budget and tackle the deficit, which was $99 billion, far less than the $1.6 trillion now projected.
That political dynamic is gone, she said, and the vast majority of senators are concerned about political challenges from within their own parties, so fewer senators — only about 25 now — are motivated to appeal to the center.
“There are fewer and fewer senators who represent a broad, diverse political constituency anymore,” Snowe said. “You either represent a red state as a Republican or a blue state as a Democrat.”
She said the national electorate appears divided as well, viewing events through either “MSNBC or the FOX News prism.”
“It’s either-or,” she said.
Snowe, a moderate, has enjoyed support from Maine Democrats and independents. In her last election, in 2006, she won with 74 percent of the vote, in a state where less than a third of voters are registered Republicans.
She has not had a primary challenger in her three Senate races or any of her House races.
She is up for re-election next year and is viewed by many Republicans in Maine as lacking conservative credentials.
A 2009 poll of self-identified Republicans by Public Policy Polling in Raleigh, N.C., showed that she would lose a primary against a “more conservative challenger,” 59 percent to 31 percent.
So far, she has two primary challengers, Scott D’Amboise, a tea party-affiliated Republican from Lisbon Falls, and Andrew Ian Dodge of Harpswell, who leads the Maine Tea Party Patriots.
Two Maine Democrats, state Rep. Jon Hinck of Portland and former Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap of Old Town, said last month that they are contemplating running against Snowe in 2012.
Snowe said she is more conservative, particularly on fiscal issues, than many people assume and cited her consistent support for a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution.