Olympia Snowe, one of the five co-chairs of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Commission on Political Reform which spent the last year developing “a blueprint to strengthen our democracy,” with, left to right, the other co-chairs: Dan Glickman, Dirk Kempthorne, Tom Daschle; Trent Lott is not pictured.
Olympia Snowe, one of the five co-chairs of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Commission on Political Reform which spent the last year developing “a blueprint to strengthen our democracy,” with, left to right, the other co-chairs: Dan Glickman, Dirk Kempthorne, Tom Daschle; Trent Lott is not pictured.

During his 1948 re-election campaign, President Harry Truman famously dubbed the Republican-led 80th Congress the "Do Nothing Congress." These days, we'd be fortunate to have such a productive legislative body, says former Maine Senator Olympia Snowe.

"They passed 906 bills," said Snowe during a phone interview this week. "The last Congress that I was sitting in that ended in 2012, we passed 283. To date, in this Congress, since the beginning of 2013, they've passed 121. They're virtually not in session. A few days here and there. That's disturbing."

In February 2012 when Snowe announced her sudden decision to not seek re-election and retire from the U.S. Senate, many Mainers were caught off guard. Popular with her constituency throughout her 33-year career, Snowe was seen as one of the last true centrists left in the Republican Party. But after the 2010 election, Snowe increasingly found herself facing the wrath of radical Tea Party activists threatening to "primary" any Republican who worked across the aisle. Although Snowe was facing a virtually guaranteed win over her two Tea Party primary opponents, weeks before she made her announcement she had been booed by some members of her own party attending a Republican caucus in Bangor. Snowe later said her decision was swayed by the hyper partisanship of Washington politics and her frustration with being unable to end the gridlock of divided government.

"The reason why I left the Senate is because I recognized that the change wasn't going to occur within the institution itself because so many of the dynamics are being driven on the outside," said Snowe.

In the two years since her retirement, Snowe has been active with the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington, D.C.-based organization founded in 2007 by former Senate Majority Leaders Tom Daschle, the late Howard Baker, Bob Dole and Maine's George Mitchell to promote bipartisan public policy making. Snowe is one of five co-chairs of the BPC's Commission on Political Reform, which last year hosted a series of "National Conversations on American Unity" to investigate the causes and effects of the country's partisan divide and come up with recommendations for reducing the polarization in Congress. Last week, the BPC released a list of its 60 recommendations for addressing the electoral process, the rules of Congress, and public service which they believe will strengthen the country's democracy.

"A Bipartisan Blueprint to Strengthen Democracy"

According to Snowe, the exponential growth of money in politics, in large part due to a series of Supreme Court decisions, has been the biggest culprit in contributing to the political impasse in Congress.

"There is no line of demarcation between the post-election and governing and then time set aside for the next election," said Snowe. "It's now become a perpetual cycle and so has the mentality. The focus and attention is all about the next campaign and the politics and not about the policy and governing. It's almost as if you can't separate the two."

In the BPC report, Snowe and her colleagues recommend beefing up disclosure laws to ensure that all donors to a political ad campaign are revealed to voters.

"Disclosure drives transparency, but more importantly accountability," said Snowe. "If it's 'Citizens for a Better America,' exactly who is financing [them]? We need to know that, and I think that's going to be extremely important."

Snowe added that all personal "leadership PACs" used by rank-and-file members of Congress to fundraise for their colleagues' elections should be banned.

The new report also calls for states to adopt independent redistricting commissions to avoid the trend of solidly partisan "gerrymandered" districts created by the parties in power. Snowe emphasized the need for an "open primary" system, which does not require voters to be affiliated with a party to vote in partisan primaries.

"The whole idea is to expand voter participation in the primaries," explained Snowe. "Who's casting ballots in the primaries matters profoundly now, because ultimately it essentially determines who is going to serve in the US House of Representatives and in the United States Senate."

The BPC's Commission on Poltical Reform has set a goal for getting 30-percent voter turnout in primaries by 2020. It's estimated that only 16 percent of eligible voters turned out for 2012 primaries.

The commission also makes several specific recommendations for reforming Congress, such as requiring that members of both the House and Senate actually work a five-day week instead of coming in only a few days a week for a few hours. Snowe also highlighted the need for filibuster reform and limiting amendments that stall bills.

Finally, the commission developed several recommendations to promote civic engagement.

"Successful democracies require an educated citizenry who actively participates in civic life," the report stated. "Unfortunately, over the past five decades, the United States has witnessed a steady and perilous decline in the habits that define U.S. citizens: fewer Americans volunteer, charitable giving is lower, and many young adults increasingly question the value of seeking elective office."

In an attempt to reverse those trends the commission makes several recommendations, including one for a one-year community service requirement for all Americans ages 18 to 28. This could include military service, civilian service, volunteer service, nonprofit work, AmeriCorps or the Peace Corps. The commission calls for increased funding for AmeriCorps, VISTA and the Peace Corps to expand the number of available slots in the programs.

Making It Happen

Snowe said that turning the recommendations into reality will involve a two-pronged strategy of public engagement and lobbying Congress. She said the group plans to begin a nationwide tour holding forums at colleges and universities to promote the plan.

"By launching a Citizens for Political Reform movement, we want to engage the public to become actively involved in driving these reforms, whether through citizen's referenda, through petition drives or the legislatures in conjunction with governors," said Snowe.

Although achieving any change in government appears near impossible these days, Snowe said the plan's success will depend on public participation, which she noted has made a profound difference throughout American history long before organizing tools like social media existed. And while it may seem like a long shot, she said that the other option isn't an attractive alternative.

Said Snowe, "If you sit on the sidelines then you're going to continue to allow the small minority of the population dictating the tenor, the tone, the polarization and the hyper partisanship that's engulfed the political system and governance in Washington."

Following are the detailed recommendations developed by the Commission on Political Reform, which is co-chaired by Maine's former Senator Olympia Snowe, and which she talks about on page 1 of this week's Free Press.

In a letter, signed by the co-chairs, introducing the report, they write:

"In today's hyper-partisan era, when citizens are more politically divided and get more of their news and information from ideologically driven sources, this [the Commission's] effort has provided a forum for those who believe that despite our differences, we must begin to listen to each other and work together in order to find common ground. As we have seen throughout our careers, many political decision-makers increasingly favor partisan rancor over reasoned debate in discussing national policies. With such deeply held contrasting principles, we as a country must ask: Can our democracy function effectively in such a partisan era? We believe the answer is yes, but engagement by the American people will be necessary, as has been the case throughout history, to encourage policymakers to solve problems. We come here today with the hope that our democracy will once again be able to respond to national challenges, despite our ideological differences...."

The Commission's recommendations concern three specific areas of reform: the electoral process, the process by which Congress legislates and manages its own affairs, and the ability of Americans to plug into the nation's civic life through public service.

Electoral System Reform

The commission proposes the following recommendations to reduce distrust in the electoral system:

• States should adopt redistricting commissions that have the bipartisan support of the legislature and the electorate.

• States and political parties should strive to dramatically increase the number of voters who cast ballots in political primaries. They should strive to increase the number of eligible voters who turn out in 2020 by 30 percent and in 2026 by 35 percent.

• States should move away from very low-turnout methods of candidate selection, such as caucuses and conventions.

• States should create a single, national congressional primary date in June.

• States should dramatically improve access to their voter-registration lists by strengthening opportunities to register to vote and identifying eligible unregistered voters and contacting them with the opportunity to register. To ensure greater integrity, states should encourage direct opportunities for voters to input their own registration information and update their addresses. States should also conduct crosschecks with other states' lists and with other databases to eliminate ineligible registrations or to correct mistakes on registration rolls.

• Political contributions, including those made to outside and independent groups, should be disclosed so that citizens have full information about who is paying for the political messages they see.

• Congress should pass legislation requiring detailed disclosure of spending by congressional leadership PACs and mandating that leadership PAC funds be used solely for political activities (such as donations to other candidates) and not for personal use.

• In its rules, Congress should limit the use of leadership PACs to the top three congressional leaders of each party in both the House of Representatives and the Senate.

Congressional Reform

Congress, says the Commission, is simply not performing the job it is required to do - passing budgets, responsibly managing the nation's finances, making the decisions necessary to ensure that government functions at a basic level of efficiency. Regular gridlock has damaged Congress's reputation with the American people, and congressional job approval has dropped to near record lows.

The commission recommends the following reforms of Congress be undertaken:

• The House of Representatives and the Senate should schedule synchronized, five-day workweeks in Washington, with three weeks in session followed by one-week recesses.

• The president should hold regular, monthly meetings with congressional leaders and be invited by leadership to attend joint congressional caucuses twice a year.

• Full-fledged conference committees between the chambers on important legislation are essential to ensuring greater member participation in the policy process.

• Committee chairs should solicit the views of all committee members well in advance of a committee markup and should pay special attention to the minority members so that efforts are made to incorporate as many of their suggested changes into the "chairman's mark" before the bill is marked up by the full committee.

• It should be the policy of the Senate that changes to its rules be made at the start of a new Congress. Debate over changes to those rules will come to a conclusion and to a vote when two-thirds of the Senate agrees to them.

• The Senate majority leader is encouraged to exercise the leader's discretion under the rules to allow, on a selective basis, for a filibuster to proceed uninterrupted until all senators wishing to speak have done so

• The Senate should establish a process that gives priority consideration to a minimum of ten amendments offered by and alternating between senators of both parties.

• Congress should adopt a biennial budget process that includes two-year budget resolutions and appropriations bills, with expedited consideration given to enacting into law two-year discretionary spending ceilings for enforcement purposes.

A Call to Service

The following recommendations are generally focused on engaging more people in civic life:

• All Americans ages 18 to 28 should commit to one full year of service to their communities and the nation. This commitment can be fulfilled by participating in any type of full-time service, including military service; civilian service, in programs such as the Peace Corps or AmeriCorps; or volunteer service, through local and national nonprofits and religious entities that serve communities and the country.

• Colleges and universities should reaffirm their missions to develop engaged and active citizens and encourage service in formal and informal programs.

• Consistent with state constitutions, schools should refocus on their original civic missions to provide the core values, knowledge, and ideas from U.S. history in civic learning that will equip the next generation of active, engaged citizens. Educators need modern curricula, professional development, and training to provide adequate civic skills to young Americans.

• The federal government must leverage additional resources to increase the supply of available positions in AmeriCorps, VISTA, and the Peace Corps-successful government-service programs that turn away countless individuals each year.

• The public and private sectors should create a nationally recognized "qualified service" opportunity program that uses modern technology to match the supply of existing yearlong service opportunities to the demand of applicants seeking to meet their new cultural expectation to serve.

• Political parties should ensure that all efforts are made to engage under-30 candidates by providing them with candidate training and access to the resources necessary to run competitive campaigns for elective office at the local, state, and federal levels.

• For federal appointees, only the 500 filling the top policymaking roles in the various departments and agencies should require confirmation by the Senate.

• Presidential administrations should open political appointments to the widest possible pool of applicants. They should not impose overly burdensome pre- employment restrictions or rule out entire classes of candidates, but they should consider the merits of each individual for a position of public service.

Finally, the Commission writes, "These proposals are not a magic elixir that will restore America's body politic to health overnight. We do not call for a constitutional convention, the establishment of a viable, national third party, or for a billion-dollar campaign to educate the public. Our recommendations are practical and achievable and, if implemented, will be a first step toward lowering the temperature on an overheating, polarized political process. We present a series of ideas that can generate true bipartisan support while remaining mindful of the political divisions that define the country and the political imperatives that influence the decisions of elected leaders. Taken together, these recommendations have the potential to transform the nation's politics and civic life. The result will be a stronger, more united country that is better equipped to meet the challenges of our times."