Waterville, ME – U.S. Senator Susan Collins delivered the 2015 Senator George J. Mitchell International Lecture at Colby College this evening. Senator Collins’ address was titled, “Bipartisanship and Moderation: The Formula for Progress” and discussed one of her highest priorities in the U.S. Senate: facilitating strong bipartisan compromise to achieve progress. First elected in 1996, Senator Collins has earned a national reputation as an effective legislator who works across party lines to seek consensus on our nation’s most important issues.
Since 2005, the Senator George J. Mitchell Distinguished International Lecture Series has brought a prominent foreign policy leaders to Colby College for a lecture and a dinner. Past speakers have included the Honorable Madeline Albright and former U.S. Senator Thomas A. Daschle.
Senator Collins received an honorary degree from Colby College at the inauguration of the College’s 20th president, David A. Greene, in September of 2014.
See below and HERE for a full copy of Senator Collins’ remarks, as prepared for delivery:
Sen. Susan M. Collins
April 9, 2015
Bipartisanship and Moderation:
The Formula for Progress
Thank you, Senator Mitchell. I am honored to have you here tonight. From Waterville to Washington and from Northern Ireland to the Middle East, Senator Mitchell has created a legacy of accomplishment and service. Our nation and the world are grateful for his dedication. Even as he has built a remarkable national and international reputation, George Mitchell has never forgotten where he came from. His love of Maine always shines brightly.
I am honored to be here again at Colby College. Last year, Colby awarded me an honorary degree, which meant so much to me. It was exactly 100 years after my great-aunt, Clara Collins Piper, received her Colby degree. What a remarkable woman she was. She first attended Colby as a 17 year-old girl in 1909, but then ran out of money and had to leave in 1911 to teach school to earn enough to complete her degree, which she did in 1914. How unusual that must have been in those days -- particularly for a young woman -- to want an education that much!
The journey from Capitol Hill to Mayflower Hill is one I always enjoy, particularly when my destination is the Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs and Civic Engagement. Before I begin, let me say that I am aware that last month’s lecture was on the longstanding tradition of satire and mockery in American politics – particularly directed at those in political office. I am just hoping that those of you who attended that event saw it as a fascinating history lesson and not as an instruction manual. At least not for tonight.
My topic this evening is why moderation and bipartisanship lead to progress. The flip side of that premise, of course, is how the hyperpartisanship and incivility in Washington and throughout our nation elevate extremism and prevent progress.
If you feel like you are living in one of the most partisan times in modern American history, there is a reason for that – you are. I make this statement based on an analysis of party unity voting in Congress recently published by the well-known Washington news magazine CQ Weekly – a publication that covers Congress in a decidedly non-partisan manner.
Because we have the good fortune to have this lecture’s namesake here tonight, let’s look at the percentage of “party unity” votes that occurred in the Senate when George Mitchell was Majority Leader. By party unity votes, I am referring to the percentage of Senate votes where the majority of Republicans vote one way and the majority of Democrats vote the other. During Senator Mitchell’s six-year tenure as Leader, with one exception, the percentage of party unity votes hovered around 50 percent each year. In fact, in Senator Mitchell’s first year as Leader, the percentage of party unity votes was only 35 percent.
In contrast, last year, it was 67 percent.
This was actually an improvement over two years ago, when it was 70 percent.
Another way to look at this is by considering the votes of individual Senators to see how often each votes with his or her own party – whether the votes are controversial or not.
Last year, all but three of my Republican colleagues voted with their caucus on more than 80 percent of all votes cast. By the way, Lisa Murkowski, Kelly Ayotte, and I were the three Senators. The discerning individuals in this hall will notice what these less-partisan Senators have in common.
On the other side of the aisle, only one Democrat voted with his party fewer than 93 percent of the time. In fact, eight Democrats voted with their party 99.5 percent of the time – and 11 Democrats did so on 100 percent of all votes cast last year.
I support the two-party system, and I am not trying to imply that over the previous half-century everyone got along all the time. But, like most Americans, I have never believed that either party has a monopoly on good ideas. The strength of the Senate is that it is the world’s greatest deliberative body – where proposals are intended to be considered from all possible points of view, debated – even argued about – and then eventually advanced or rejected through negotiation and compromise. But, as you can see, the world’s greatest deliberative body didn’t do much deliberating last year.
I have my own theories about what causes the hyperpartisanship that we see in politics today -- and the great thing about being a Senator is that I can set forth my ideas tonight without the years of painstaking research and mountains of documentary evidence that the scholars in the audience need to produce to support their theories.
While there are myriad causes, I will highlight four interconnected factors that contribute to the problem.
First is the general lowering of the level of discourse that we have seen in the Internet Age, as media such as Twitter and anonymous online comments have emerged as the preferred arena for political debate.
Studies by the Pew Research Center have found that the Internet is rapidly displacing face-to-face contact and that Websites devoted to political and social issues increasingly are tending to the extremes, where alternate views are either ignored or misrepresented and ridiculed. In short, people tend to congregate online with people who think as they do. When they encounter opposing viewpoints, the trend is to attack, rather than debate.
We have all seen routinely how seemingly mundane discussions deteriorate into online food fights. And while I have never understood why anyone would care what “Chickadee 38” and “Forest Grump” think about an issue, these anonymous posts can certainly get a reaction.
A fairly innocuous op-ed I submitted to a Maine newspaper last month illustrates the now-familiar pattern. I was explaining my view that federal agencies have an obligation to use the most current scientific information in their decisions, and that members of Congress have an obligation to provide oversight to ensure that is done. This was not exactly the type of article that would capture the imagination or inflame the American public.
My piece generated 48 reader comments. All but four were anonymous. The very first comment accused Republicans of being “greedy”; the second called Democrats “stupid.” That was basically the high point of the discussion – it went downhill from there. Very few of the comments had anything to do with the subject of the article I wrote.
A second factor is a close cousin to the bruising Internet chatter – that is, the cable and radio shows whose ratings depend on reaching small but highly partisan members of the electorate. Certain television shows will invite only those who will inflame the debate. Those who will suggest compromise or tone down the rhetoric won’t be invited.
The tone of these discussions has leaked into the halls of Congress, even during formal ceremonies. Consider the House member from my party who interrupted President Obama’s speech to a joint session of Congress a few years ago by yelling "You lie!" Or the House Democratic member whose contribution to the health care debate consisted of asserting that Republicans had a two-word plan – “Die Quickly.”
A third related factor is that we live in a time of never-ending campaign cycles. When I started in the Senate, some in Washington would cynically refer to odd-numbered years in Congress as “work years” and even-numbered years as “campaign years.” If only we could keep to that schedule now, it would actually be an improvement.
And speaking of campaigns -- can we have the slide please? Does anyone know what this is? It is not a Rorschach test – it is the outline of a Congressional district in Pennsylvania.
So is this. You see, the district has to be contiguous.
And this. It looks like my idea of what the Aleutian Islands look like.
As you might suspect, gerrymandering of Congressional districts is the fourth factor. Gerrymandering is an old concept, but it is being elevated to an art form to create one-party Congressional districts. With only two districts, Maine is relatively immune. But in many states the boundaries of districts can be truly byzantine, where the sense of community built by history and geography is giving way to the desire to create so-called “Red” or “Blue” districts, perpetually safe from electoral challenge.
In a primary election, candidates from the extremes of the political spectrum tend to have an advantage. The check on this is that in the general election, the victorious candidate is often the one who can win the votes of the center. So in a balanced district, you have an imperfect but relatively effective equilibrium where the system incentivizes primary voters to select candidates with broader appeal. This incentivizes candidates to take more reasonable positions.
In unbalanced gerrymandered districts, however, that equation gets turned on its head. The primary winner in an overwhelmingly Red or Blue district is the odds-on favorite to win the general election. In these districts, independents and moderates are marginalized. As a result, the districts produce more Members of Congress from the extremes.
When you combine these four factors, it gets harder and harder to convince people to work together. I am uncertain who first described politics as the “art of compromise,” but that maxim, to which I have always subscribed, seems woefully out of fashion today.
Sitting down with those on the opposite side of an issue, figuring out which issues matter the most to each side, negotiating in good faith, and attempting to reach a solution are actions often vilified by hard-liners on both the left and the right. Far too often, reaching across party lines – even when it produces results – is greeted with scorn by strident partisans who accuse the compromiser of being a “sellout.”
For too many today, achieving solutions is not the primary goal; rather, it is to score political points, even if that means that the problems confronting our country go unresolved. That is surely one reason that Congress is held in such low esteem by the American people.
As the title of my talk indicates, I firmly believe that bipartisanship and compromise lead not only to action but also to better results. And I also believe that the converse is true. Partisanship and intransigence lead to worse results.
When we act unilaterally, we tend to either make bad decisions or spiral into dysfunction – or both. A recent example involves Senate rule changes surrounding the filibuster. In the Senate, procedural tactics were increasingly used to prevent minority amendments during the last Congress. That caused the minority to overuse the filibuster to stop bills to which it could not offer amendments. That, in turn, led to the majority party breaking the Senate rules to change Senate rules – no small irony there – in order to prevent the filibuster in certain circumstances.
The minority, appropriately, cried “foul.” An election occurred, the minority became the majority, but guess what? The new majority then changed its mind and decided that it liked these new rules after all, now that they favored their side.
It doesn’t have to be like this. Many of the great accomplishments that we have had in Congress have been the product of bipartisan efforts.
An historic example that is fresh in my mind is the Voting Rights Act in 1965. Last month, I had the good fortune to attend 50th Anniversary celebration in Selma, Alabama, of the passage of this historic law. Our delegation included Senator Tim Scott, the first African-American Senator elected from the South since 1881, and the great civil rights icon, John Lewis, who is now a Congressman from Georgia. We commemorated the march for voting rights across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the scene of the infamous “Bloody Sunday” attack on March 7, 1965.
Just as an aside, I have to tell you how moving Congressman Lewis’s remarks were at the ceremony. He demonstrates an amazing capacity for forgiveness. There was not a trace of bitterness in his retelling of the repeated beatings and jailings he endured as he fought for justice and equality as the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
At the ceremony, Congressman Lewis stood near Peggy Wallace Kennedy, daughter of Governor George Wallace who ordered the state troopers to assault the peaceful marchers. How wonderful that she was present, too. The powerful themes of redemption and forgiveness resonated throughout the weekend.
The Voting Rights Act was dependent on a bipartisan effort in Congress. Senator Mike Mansfield, the Democratic Leader, and Senator Everett Dirksen, the Republican Leader, wrote the bill together in close consultation with President Johnson. Senators Mansfield and Dirksen worked together to overcome the many obstacles the bill faced getting through Congress: fighting back delays in Committee, rounding up votes to overcome amendments and filibusters that would kill the bill, and strategizing how to get the bill through conference. The bill passed the Senate by a vote of 79-18, with just one Republican voting in opposition along with 17 Democrats.
In Selma, Luci Baines Johnson told me a story of her father, President Johnson, signing this historic law. As a teenager, watching her father at the bill signing ceremony, she saw him give the first signing pen to Senator Dirksen. “Daddy,” she asked, “why did you give that pen to that grumpy old Republican?” “Because, Luci Baines,” he replied, “without the Republicans, that would have been just a bill, not a law.”
There is a reason why President Johnson’s biographer, Robert Caro, described him as the “Master of the Senate.”
Let me further illustrate the power of bipartisanship with the story of the repeal of “Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell.”
In 2010, I joined Senator Joe Lieberman in leading the fight to repeal this law that prevented patriotic gay and lesbian Americans from serving in the armed forces unless they concealed their sexual orientation. My view was that we ought to be expressing our gratitude to those willing to serve, not drumming them out of our armed forces.
Keep in mind that Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell was signed into law by a Democratic President, Bill Clinton, in 1993 and enjoyed bipartisan support for many years. Its successful repeal was going to require Republican as well as Democratic votes.
As difficult as it may be to imagine now, in 2010 outright repeal was still controversial. For example, while the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff testified in favor of repeal, the Commandant of the Marine Corps was strongly opposed to repealing this 17-year-old discriminatory law.
In March of 2010, during consideration of the huge defense policy bill by the Senate Armed Services Committee, Senator Joe Lieberman, an Independent, the Chairman Carl Levin, a Democrat, and I, a Republican, pressed the case for repeal. Two Democrats on the Committee, one with extensive military experience, argued against repeal, as did former POW and Republican presidential candidate John McCain.
After a contentious debate, the Committee voted 16 to 13 to include repeal in the defense bill – not exactly an overwhelming vote. Nevertheless, this was a significant first step, even though at the time I was the only Republican to vote in favor of repeal. But I was optimistic that, ultimately, I could convince others to join me.
In December, during the final days of the legislative session, the giant defense bill, which included the repeal provisions, was brought up on the Senate floor. But dysfunction in the Senate and disagreement over amendments stalled the defense bill and almost killed repeal of DA/DT. We appeared to be stymied.
Senator Lieberman and I talked about how to respond to this big setback. We decided to introduce a separate bipartisan bill to repeal DA/DT.
But the clock was ticking, and we were worried about how we would get our bill brought to the Senate floor. That weekend, the Assistant Democratic Leader from the House, Steny Hoyer, called me. He proposed that the House, then under Democratic control, would pass a separate repeal bill but wanted a guarantee from Joe and me that we could round up a sufficient number of Republican votes to pass it in the Senate. I told him that I thought we could.
For the next 10 days, Senator Lieberman and I worked night and day to round up Republican votes even as the clock on the 111th Congress ran down. Many people thought ours was an impossible task, but we made the case persistently, one-on-one with our colleagues.
When the Senate clerk began to call the roll on our bill, I was anxious but confident that the Republican votes needed to put the bill over the top were there. And they were. The final roll call on December 20th was a filibuster-proof 65 to 31, and history was made when the bill was signed into law two days later.
My point is, that as with the Voting Rights Act of 1965, without bipartisan leaders, and without the votes of members of both parties, DA/DT would not have been repealed that year. And because there was bipartisan support, there has not been any serious attempt to delay or turn back the clock on repeal.
The government shutdown a year and a half ago provides another clear example of the damage caused by ideological polarization, and its resolution once again demonstrates the power of bipartisan compromise.
The shutdown started on October 1, 2013, because Congress and the Administration failed to reach an agreement to fund the federal government for the new fiscal year that began on that date. It is estimated that the 16-day shutdown cost the American economy $24 billion.
Hard-working people in Maine paid a high price for Washington’s hyperpartisanship. Small businesses – such as the inns, gift shops, and restaurants -- around Acadia National Park lost some $16 million, or $1 million each day, due to the closure of the park during the peak fall foliage season. That hurt not just the business owners but also the wait staff, store clerks, and housekeepers.
On Saturday, October 5, as the shutdown ended its first week, I was alone in my Senate office listening to the highly partisan debate in the Senate. All of my staff was furloughed. The debate on the Senate floor consisted of a Democratic Senator followed by a Republican Senator, alternating back and forth, each blaming the other side with no one offering a solution. I thought, “This must stop.” I drafted a plan I believed both parties could live with, rushed over to the Senate floor, and implored my colleagues to work to end the impasse. I said it was time both sides came out of their partisan corners, stopped fighting, and started legislating in a manner worthy of the people of this great nation.
No sooner did I leave the Senate floor than my cellphone started ringing. First to call was Lisa Murkowski from Alaska who said, “Count me in; I want to help.” The next call was from Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire with much the same message. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota also called. The discerning in the room will once again recognize the same pattern I alluded to earlier… We also attracted a few good men, I hasten to say.
Very quickly, I was leading a bipartisan group of seven Republicans, six Democrats, and one Independent, my Maine colleague Angus King. We worked night and day to come up with a compromise to reopen government.
Reaching across party lines, we broke through the partisan impasse. Instead of finger-pointing and blame-fixing, we offered a solution. It showed that the two parties could come together, negotiate, and reach an agreement in an atmosphere of mutual respect and good faith. I call our bipartisan group the “Common Sense Coalition,” and we continue to seek solutions across the partisan divide.
Compromise is difficult, but governing without it in a democracy is impossible. Rather than second best, a bipartisan solution reached by honest debate and consideration of alternate viewpoints very often is not just the one with the best chance to prevail, but also the best answer. Often, what makes a policy issue challenging is that there are valid arguments and concerns on both sides. In such cases, the optimal resolution accommodates the concerns of the opposing sides to the greatest extent possible.
For many of the issues we address in Washington are not about fundamentals, about right versus wrong. The vast majority of policy decisions – whether on tax policy, spending priorities, environmental decisions, or a host of other subjects – require a careful and informed balancing of different points of view. In short, they require compromise.
There is no magic bullet. Washington is unlikely to change unless those outside of Washington demand it. We who represent the people of this great nation must put progress over partisanship, statesmanship over stridency, and compromise over conflict.
I hope that the examples I have provided will underscore this crucial point: unyielding adherence to an extreme position is easy. It is compromise, the hard work of bringing people together to find common ground that requires determination, intellect, and courage. It may not be easy to be passionate about compromise, but it is easy to be passionate about justice, opportunity, and progress.
Thank you, and I am happy to take your questions.