November 13, 2013

Want to Effect Change in Washington? Write Your Congressman

During the Schwab Impact conference in Washington, three members of the political class addressed federal government dysfunction, all lamenting that they had never seen such blatant partisanship. Only one presented a practical way to end that dysfunction: former Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine.

Greg Valliere of the Potomac Research Group, a popular speaker at what seems to be every Schwab national conference, and former Defense secretary, CIA director and congressman Leon Panetta bemoaned the current state of affairs in Washington, where Impact is running through mid-Wednesday. On Sunday evening, Valliere said that throughout his long career reading the political tea leaves in DC, he had never seen such dysfunction and partisanship between leaders and rank-and-file of the Democrats and Republicans, though the GOP was also facing its own “civil war” between Tea Partiers and the Republican “establishment." He predicted that government deadlock would, ironically, be a good thing for the markets and economy, partly because there would be no new spending in Washington.

In his heartfelt speech and follow-up Q&A session with Schwab’s Neesha Hathi, Panetta also railed against the political tone in the capital. “In my 50 years of public service, I’ve never seen so much government dysfunction.” He recalled being a young member of Congress during the Reagan administration’s budget talks, when the leadership of both parties demanded that a budget deal be done.

“They told us to get a deal,” he said, “and that everything was on the table.” Speaking of Congress and the necessity for compromise, Panetta said "these guys have to learn that good governing can be good politics.”

Reflecting his last government responsibilities as secretary of Defense, Panetta responded to a question on the effects of sequestration by warning that “sequestration is hollowing out our military,” and that large portions of the military are not training nor deploying important assets because of sequester. “That shows you how crazy Washington has become,” he said: “they put a gun to their own heads” in setting up sequestration cuts that would be so “crazy” that a compromise would have to be reached. But Congress was not able to forestall that bit of craziness.

Snowe, the former Republican senator from Maine, had a fireside chat with Schwab’s Liz Ann Sonders on Monday evening. Rather than outright anger, Snowe was matter of fact, saying the problem in Washington was that the mindset of members of Congress has now “become all about positioning for the next election, not about making policy.”

Speaking of the nation’s downgrade by Standard & Poor’s, she deadpanned by saying S&P had warned every member of Congress about the strong possibility of a downgrade. “You’d have thought that would grab people’s attention,” she said, “but no.”

Recalling her own career, she said, “I joined government to solve problems, but now it’s not about that,” warning that government “dysfunction was imperiling the country.”

Saying she remains no fan of big government, Snowe sent a message to her fellow Republicans by saying “you can’t build a governing party by being exclusive and intolerant,” and that it remains “in our nation’s interest to take care of each other; to have a social safety net.”

But she then sent her practical message to the Schwab attendees and her countrymen. “Don’t underestimate your voice with your elected officials,” she said. “It’s critically important that you weigh in” with your elected officials, who she said definitely listen to constituents’ direct messages. While she said that officials do watch the polls, which show high levels of dissatisfaction with government dysfunction, they pay more attention to their constituents, who failed to contact members of Congress during the government shutdown, for instance.

She concluded by pointing out how successful citizens can be in affecting Congress’ behavior, saying “that’s how the fringe have made their voices heard.”

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