NACD Chairman Emerita Barbara Hackman Franklin introduced the first keynote speaker of the day: former Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-ME), who is also a director of T. Rowe Price Group Inc. and Bipartisan Policy Center. With the government shutdown continuing, Snowe offered an insider’s perspective of what’s causing the lack of bipartisanship in Congress and the likelihood of Congress and the president reaching agreement on long-term fiscal and regulatory issues.
Snowe has first-hand experience in navigating a government shutdown in Congress—her first year in the Senate was 1995 when the last shutdown occurred. She noted that during that time a bipartisan coalition of senators convened to come up with a balanced budget. “We had to show we could collaborate,” Snowe explained.
The culture of collaboration appears to be moving slowly in the current Congress. Divides over entitlements, spending, debts, and the Affordable Care Act (ACA) have all contributed to the government stalemate. “It’s mind-boggling that Congress would cost this country $300 million in terms of economic output with this shutdown,” Snowe said. “It creates an atmosphere of uncertainty.”
Growth of Partisanship
Why is it so difficult to achieve bipartisan harmony? Snowe notes that part of this is because red states keep getting redder and blue states keep getting bluer. “There is no incentive to working across the aisle because of the risk of being opposed in primary elections,” she said. “We are more polarized in this moment than we have been in 134 years.”
While many may have hoped that recent past events, such as the fiscal cliff and the debt-ceiling crisis of 2011, would have been lessons learned to prevent Congress from dragging America through another economic upheaval, it doesn’t appear to be the case. “The Democrats and the Republicans are like two ships passing in the night—one in the Atlantic and one in the Pacific,” Snowe said.
Ending the Stalemate
Snow said attaching the ACA to government operations is not achievable nor is it a winning strategy. She said the key is to reopen government and pass the debt-ceiling increase. “It’s astonishing that some members of Congress truly believe defaulting on our credit as a country wouldn’t roil the markets,” Snowe noted.
She suggested that open communications among leaders will be significant. “This is a transcendent moment for our country,” she explained. “Congress and the president must communicate; they can’t operate in parallel universes.”
But communication among government leaders is just one piece of the conversation. Directors—and the public at-large—also have a duty to speak up. Snowe suggested utilizing social media and online technologies to communicate actively as one approach. “We have the responsibility to make sure Congress becomes the solution-driven powerhouse it once was using the same approach as our founding fathers: advancing decision making through consensus,” Snowe said. “We can’t afford to institutionalize this culture of winning at all costs.”