Sen. Susan Collins was in Mystic, Conn., Friday telling voters why Joe Lieberman, their Democratic senator for 17 or so years, deserved another term, even if he is no longer a Democrat. Next week, she is scheduled to visit Philadelphia to describe the good works of Republican Rick Santorum, who is losing a tough race against Pennsylvania’s state treasurer, Bob Casey.
The fact that both a moderate Democrat and a conservative Republican find Collins helpful to their campaigns is telling. Support from her indicates not just that the candidates have earned the backing of the political middle, where a large number of voters live, but that their time in Washington has been focused less on politics and more on legislation.
Even as the Senate performed wretchedly, with her party marching behind Majority Leader Bill Frist to an approval rating of around 30 percent (which Frist believes will propel him to a presidential bid, no one having told him that you can’t endure that sort of rating until after you become president), Susan Collins is completing a very good year.
The reason she has had such a good year is a warning for Democrats giddy with the hope of regaining the House after 12 years and daring to dream they might take the Senate too. If they act as Republicans have recently – plenty of sound and fury, signifying plenty of sound and fury – they would swiftly lose both houses again.
Collins is chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, where Lieberman has been the senior Democrat. Together this year, they persuaded colleagues to support an overhaul of FEMA that, by keeping the agency as a distinct entity within Homeland Security, looked very different from where some senators wanted the reform to go. While doing that, the two also passed a bill that enhances the security of chemical plants, giving DHS authority to establish risk- and performance-based standards to help protect against terrorist attacks.
Meanwhile, Collins worked with Sen. Patty Murray, a Democrat from Washington, to pass port security, which the president signed a few days ago. The legislation improves cargo screening, sets up standards for inspection overseas and requires DHS to develop plans for resumption of trade if an attack does occur. With yet another Democrat, Tom Carper of Delaware, Collins came within hours last month of passing postal reform after prying concessions from the U.S. Postal Service, UPS and the White House before the years-long project that would have made rates more predictable collapsed on a workers’ comp issue.
These bills share several traits besides the obvious of being sponsored by a Republican and a Democrat. They all begin, for instance, with a specific, nonpartisan problem and they all construct answers that neither impugn nor glorify the ideologies of either party. Though political pressure is felt everywhere in Washington, these bills lean heavily on the pragmatism of getting something of substance passed, which almost always demands compromise, over making a sweeping and usually pointless statement by refusing to bend.
They further address the sort of problems that often pass unnoticed – until calamity makes the absence of congressional action acutely noticed. FEMA’s overhaul may have come about a year late, though in the bilge of Washington infighting it’s surprising it got done at all. And Collins’ thoughtful bid at substantial lobby reform wasn’t even that lucky. But safer ports or chemical plants before some disaster hits that has everyone running around demanding an investigation? How novel.
Washington Post columnist David Broder wrote recently of Congress’s horrible year, “Whether the need was immigration reform, a rational energy policy, an effort to expand health insurance coverage or greater security for retirement, Congress failed to deliver.” It did, and the primary cause of this failure – an agenda steered by an ideology shared by nothing like a majority of the Senate, never mind 60 members needed for cloture – has been present for years, finally becoming a casualty of Iraq and dismal poll numbers.
It left members of the Senate with a choice: talk about how your opponents were endangering America or work on and pass substantial legislation where political gain wasn’t everything. Amazing how many senators turned out to be endangering America.
Besides Lieberman and Santorum, Collins’ campaign dance card this fall includes liberal Rhode Island Sen. Lincoln Chafee and conservative Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl. She’s also been asked to lend a hand at races in New Jersey, Massachusetts and Vermont. Getting things done has that effect, and it seems to make Collins too busy to worry much about ideology.
Todd Benoit is the editorial page editor of the Bangor Daily News.