For many politicians, getting to Congress is enough.
Michael Huffington, a California trust fund dilettante, burned $28 million in an unsuccessful bid to turn out Sen. Dianne Feinstein. Bob Monks was just as foolish with his family’s fortune while three times chasing a Maine U.S. Senate seat.
Getting a six-year lease on one of the historic little desks in the Senate is just the first step. What one does with it says more about the politician.
Maine’s U.S. senators, by proper upbringing or the luck of the draw, have tended to be in the top tier. For the most part, they acquired their national reputations from a dramatic historical event. For Margaret Chase Smith it was her “Declaration of Conscience” speech that helped topple redbaiter Joe McCarthy. Edmund Muskie’s measured fireside rebuttal of Richard Nixon’s vitriolic denunciation of anti-Vietnam protesters transformed Big Ed from a respected small-state senator to the 1972 Democratic presidential front-runner. Bill Cohen’s Watergate impeachment vote made him a national star. George Mitchell’s “God doesn’t take sides” sermon to Lt. Col. Oliver North had a similar effect.
Those legends have retired from the playing field, leaving Olympia J. Snowe as Maine’s senior U.S. senator. Snowe has resided on the Washington scene for nearly 20 years. There have been a few moments in the sun during that span. Her clandestine romance and subsequent marriage to Gov. John McKernan, coming on the heels of Charles and Di, was a bit of a fairy tale. Till now, though, history has denied Snowe a defining political moment.
Make no mistake, the lady does have a reputation. And like Paine Webber, she got hers the old-fashioned way.
Some politicians come to Washington to make speeches. Others fancy themselves as president. If the truth be known, a majority of members spend most of their time in the dim shadows of national consciousness raising money and figuring out how to get re-elected.
Snowe writes bills.
She introduces amendments.
Many bills and amendments.
Why seek power and political influence if you don’t intend to use it, the senator explained.
Over the long haul, no recent Maine lawmaker has come close to her level of legislative activity.
According to Congressional Quarterly, a total of 4,168 bills and resolutions were introduced in the House and Senate prior to the August recess. Only about 1 percent have been signed into law, which is a normal half-time statistic. During the 1995-96 congressional session, about 4 percent of the 6,808 submitted measures became law.
This year’s most legislatively active senators, reported, are Daniel K. Inouye of Hawaii, Patrick Moynihan of New York and Olympia Snowe of Maine. Aides say Snowe passed both Democrats when members returned after Labor Day. The scorecard is 43 bills introduced. That’s more than Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott. Two of Snowe’s proposals have been signed into law by President Clinton; three are pending floor action; and one is being considered by a conference committee. Snowe has maintained a comparable legislative pace throughout her congressional career.
Every member of Congress tries to carve out a niche. Mitchell appropriated acid rain, an environmental flavor-of-the-day issue in the early 1980s, and played it like a drum until Ollie North came along. Cohen was a little schizophrenic with his bill making. Half the time he was building up American armed forces — the other half he was downsizing them. Snowe’s avocation is women’s issues, although she often wanders into other areas.
Snowe said ideas for many bills come from just reading and paying attention to the outside world. An aide saw a PBS program about Alzheimer’s disease and urged Snowe to look at the videotape. Few had heard of the disease at the time. The PBS documentary jump-started Snowe into becoming the leading congressional advocate for Alzheimer’s research.
Reading a newspaper on a flight back to Washington got Snowe interested in genetic discrimination, which is what happens when a health insurance company cancels its coverage after finding out that the policyholder has a genetic defect that could lead to serious illness.
Aides say Snowe is a stickler for detail who leaves nothing to chance before she enters a legislative fray. That was the case early in her career. While in the House, Snowe noticed that the federal government formula for allocating a recession-triggered federal program sent virtually the entire appropriation to California and New York, leaving scraps for other states. After a boisterous debate, she got the rule changed — and took a poke in the nose from the New York media for ending their state’s gravy train.
Constituents trigger many bills. A Maine family wrote Snowe to complain that the Social Security Administration had demanded last month’s benefit check be refunded because the recipient died one day before the end of the month. The incident prompted Snowe to introduce legislation to prorate Social Security death refunds.
Sometimes the author is unappreciated. Last month Snowe was denounced by advocates of campaign finance reform for her attempted tinkering with the McCain-Feingold bill.
Snowe will likely serve out her career in the Senate denied an opportunity to impeach a Republican president, deflate a national menace, or debate a White House intelligence operative on national television.
She will, however, leave a varied and impressive legislative legacy in the public laws of this country. — WASHINGTON John Day’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org