2015 Annual Dinner: A Conversation with Two Former Senators

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At this evening’s annual meeting dinner, ALI President Roberta Cooper Ramo moderated a conversation with two former senators, Democrat George Mitchell and Republican Olympia Snowe, both of Maine.

Senator Mitchell was the Senate Majority Leader, and recalled fondly his positive working relationship with Republican Bob Dole, who at that time was the Senate Minority Leader. Even so, he cautioned the audience to be mindful of the danger of looking back with rose-colored glasses, reminding the group that politics has never truly been free of rancor in this country. At the same time, however, he acknowledged the effect of technology-enhanced gerrymandering and the massive influx of cash on the legislative process in recent years.

Senator Snowe lamented that so few truly competitive seats remain in the House at this time due to gerrymandering and noted that this trend has also resulted in increased polarization. She also noted that primaries, in which a relatively low percentage of Americans participate due to voter alienation and disaffection, are generally outcome-determinative. Senator Snowe also acknowledged the role of party re-alignment and the demise of the “Rockefeller Republican.” She pointed to the serial use of filibusters and the trend toward denying the minority party the ability to offer amendments as two signs of increased polarization.

President Ramo then asked both Senators what changes might make it possible for the Senate to regain its traditional role in ameliorating some of the partisanship of the House.  Senator Mitchell mentioned the Arizona redistricting case currently pending before the Supreme Court as an opportunity to address gerrymandering, and also expressed his hope that the country would deal with the problem of politicians being more responsive to their donors than to their constituents, especially in the post-Citizens United era.

Senator Snowe called for a restoration of normalcy in the legislative process. She reminded the group that the Senate was meant to recognize majority rule while also providing a voice to minority viewpoints. She provided four concrete examples of how this historic balance might be restored:  (1) allowing an open amendment process as a means of bridge-building between parties; (2) reinvigorating the committee process as a source of bipartisan alliances; (3) establishing a five-day expected work week for Representatives and Senators; and (4) establishing a monthly joint meeting of Republicans and Democrats, in chambers.

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