Susan Collins makes the case for a tradition of reform

9 years ago

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — At home in Aroostook County, U.S. Senator Susan Collins took the question of “disruption” and turned it slightly on its head.
The United States Senate is broken, “like so many institutions in our society,” Collins reminded a Sept. 1 Distinguished Lecture Series crowd at the University of Maine Presque Isle. However, the solutions to Washington’s political partisanship and problems like transportation funding, gay rights and bank regulation need not be radical to make progress, she argued.

Of course there is a long way to go, as another potential federal government shutdown looms this fall in the U.S. Congress. “We are paying a steep price for forsaking the principles that guide our institutions,” Collins said.
The 16-day shutdown in October 2013 cost the American economy an estimated $24 billion. “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,” she said.
In part, that shutdown ended after a number of established Senators, including Collins, drafted a plan that, while unsuccessful in passing, helped encourage negotiations that led to a resolution, if temporary.
“As the shutdown ended its first week, I was alone in my Senate office listening to the highly partisan debate on the Senate floor,” and then Senator Lisa Murkowski from Alaska called, Collins recounted “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 recognize a pattern. The women of the Senate led the way. We also attracted a few good men.”
A bunch of leaders from a broken institution helped it heal and get back to work, at least for a short time, which is one reason to rethink the ideas of “status quo” and “disruption,” Collins argued.
At one point in history, the status quo was considered positive, she said. The phrase was coined to describe the peace treaty between Rome and Carthage, a “mutual agreement to restore the balance of power that existed before the war, to return to, as the translation from Latin has it, ‘the way things were,’” Collins said. “That status quo was the foundation for the rise of the Roman Republic, early democracy, and civil society.”
Today, the status quo usually has a negative connotation. “At best,” Collins said, “today’s status quo suggests a mindless adherence to something that no longer works, a resistance to innovation, opposition to needed change, the kind of stagnation that impedes progress. At worst, the term describes a system that is corrupt and self-serving.”
How did that evolution happen, Collins asked? “And, when disruption is necessary, how shall it be done and who shall do it?”
On the second set of questions, Collins believes that her and her tribe of moderate Republicans, Democrats and Independents are indeed the people to do it.
In her own work, Collins cites the push to repeal the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” military policy prohibiting openly gays in the military. “Discrimination was the status quo, and it needed to be disrupted,” she said.
After trying to get a repeal passed as part of a larger military bill, she and Independent Senator Joe Lieberman helped build support for a stand-alone-bill.
“Many people thought ours was an impossible task,” she recalled. “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,” she said.  “As with the civil rights legislation of 50 years ago, without bipartisan leadership, and without the votes of members of both parties, DADT would not have been repealed that year.”
Collins told the crowd at UMPI to look back in recent history for examples of Congress driving “extraordinarily positive change,” pointing to “land-grant colleges, the GI Bill, the interstate highway system, Medicare, Medicaid, the civil-rights legislation of the 1960s.”
“It is truly astonishing that the institutionalists dominate the scoreboard, yet the insurrectionists get all the headlines,” she said.
Looking forward to this fall’s legislative session, Collins said she wants to take some of that same tradition in working on issues including cyber-security, transportation, biomedical research and Pell Grants for education.
“I have many priorities included in appropriations bills,” she said, highlighting one goal of increasing research funding for the National Institutes of Health. “We are falling behind,” she said.
Collins also warned of the short-term highway funding law that expires Oct. 29. “I’m glad to see Presque Isle’s Main Street looks better,” she joked, referring to Route 1 in the midst of re-pavement and sidewalk expansion. “Our infrastructure is a real problem.” Old roads and bridges are “impeding the flow of products and people,” she said.