What's Sen. Olympia Snowe Waiting For?

September 16, 2011 2:14 pm ET — Jamison Foser

Sen. Olympia Snowe

As one of the Senate's least conservative (and, ostensibly, least partisan) Republicans, Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME) should be a significant national leader during a time of divided government. For all the attention paid to ultraconservative Senate obstructionists like Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Tea Party favorite Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC), it's actually a handful of senators like Snowe and Sen. Scott Brown (R-MA) — supposed moderates, both ideologically and politically — who determine whether Republican filibusters succeed or fail, and who are well-positioned to work with Senate Democrats and the White House to help the economy and address other urgent national priorities. The Obama administration has consistently recognized Snowe's potential significance — and yet Snowe herself remains on the sidelines, imploring others to deal with problems she says must be solved immediately.

Take, for example, "comprehensive tax reform" — that's one of Snowe's purported priorities, something she stresses the urgency of on a regular basis. Here's a September 14 Snowe press release, titled "Snowe Says Comprehensive Tax Reform Fundamental to Rejuvenating Economy":

U.S. Senator Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine) says comprehensive tax reform must be part of Congress' efforts to rejuvenate the economy. Today at a Senate Finance Committee hearing examining tax reform, Senator Snowe said Congress must undertake comprehensive reform this year instead of piecemeal efforts to address only portions of the tax code.

But the release didn't mention what should be included in such reform. Three days earlier, Snowe issued a press release in reaction to President Obama's jobs speech: 

Another national stumbling block for our economy is the U.S. tax code. Its complexity and anti-competitive nature distorts business decisions, creates uncertainty among potential employers, and impedes job creation and economic growth. Over the past two years, the Senate Finance Committee has held a great number of hearings dealing specifically with tax reform, so we have more than enough guidance on how this can be undertaken. Moving forward expeditiously on comprehensive tax reform that is fair, simplified, pro-growth, and encourages savings and investment will send a solid signal to our nation that we are open for business."

On August 11, a Snowe press release titled "Snowe: Country Requires Pro-Growth Strategy from Congress: Reiterates Call to Reinvigorate Economy with Comprehensive Regulatory and Tax Reform" insisted:

[S]ince the start of this Congress I have insisted that we have a two-year window to determine how we can ensure our tax system is right for the nation in light of weak growth and a staggering budget deficit and a national debt of $14 trillion.  It is essential that Congress craft a tax code not just for today, but to provide a system of government financing that will remain stable and provide both certainty and competitiveness for the long-term.  We simply cannot afford the cost of our antiquated tax system.

Two days earlier, Snowe announced:

I have proposed that comprehensive tax reform hearings be undertaken by the Senate Finance Committee as soon as possible to forge a set of tax policy recommendations that will engender economic growth and the job creation Americans expect and deserve. I have urged Chairman Baucus and Ranking Member Hatch to hold hearings and forward a set of recommendations to the super committee so they might have the benefit of the great number of hearings our committee has held over the past two years.

There's plenty more where that came from, but here's just one more example, from August 4:

U.S. Senator Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine) today encouraged leaders of the Senate Finance Committee, Chairman Max Baucus (D-MT) and Ranking Member Orrin Hatch (R-UT), to schedule committee hearings as soon as possible to prepare tax reform recommendations for the Joint Select Committee formed by the recently signed Budget Control Act of 2011. Senator Snowe, a senior member of the Finance Committee, says the Finance Committee has a unique opportunity to provide substantial guidance on tax reform that will help generate jobs and economic prosperity.

You know who has a "unique opportunity" to guide the "comprehensive tax reform" Olympia Snowe keeps saying is necessary by the end of the year? Olympia Snowe. In addition to the leverage she could wield due to her position on the Senate's ideological spectrum, Snowe has the resume for the job. She's been a United States Senator for 16 years, serving on the Finance Committee for more than 10 years. She's the second most senior Republican on the Finance Subcommittee on Taxation and IRS Oversight. She's the ranking Republican on the Committee on Small Business & Entrepreneurship. Before winning election to the Senate, Snowe served for 16 years in the House of Representatives. And it isn't like she's only recently decided "comprehensive tax reform" is necessary: Here she is back in February of 2009:

Snowe then delivered an impassioned plea for biennial budgets and comprehensive tax reform. "I do think we have to take this window of time and reexemine the entire tax code," she said, "rather than rushing headlong into making piecemeal precipitous chances." She noted the chronic mismatch between spending and tax collections, and appealed for a simpler tax code that would improve compliance.

Well, what is she waiting for? Why doesn't Snowe write and introduce comprehensive tax reform legislation and work with like-minded colleagues to get it through the Senate? See, while she keeps talking about the urgency of such reform — it must happen this year! — she hasn't actually sponsored any comprehensive tax legislation. To be fair, Snowe has introduced some tax reform legislation:

Legislation introduced by Sen. Snowe to alleviate undue burdens faced by the small businesses in the beauty industry was endorsed by the Professional Beauty Association.  Specifically, the Small Business Tax Equalization and Compliance Act of 2011 would allow salon industry employees to operate under the same tax rules as employees in the restaurant industry in regards to gratuities.

Not exactly the "comprehensive tax reform" she keeps insisting others produce, is it? In fact, it's the kind of "piecemeal efforts to address only portions of the tax code" she criticizes her colleagues for pursuing.

Senator Snowe's economic vision boils down to "Somebody (else) should do something!"

Of course, it's routine for senators to implore their colleagues to do things they do not themselves take the lead on. And there's nothing inherently wrong with that: A senator doesn't have the expertise, capacity, or leverage to take a lead role on every important topic. That's one of the reasons why committees exist in the first place. But that doesn't get Snowe off the hook in this case — she is in position to take a lead role on tax reform. She's the tenth most senior Senate Republican, a ten-year veteran of the Finance Committee, has influence and leverage with the opposing party, and is widely respected by the news media. As recently as 2006, Time magazine named her one of the nation's ten best senators, noting, "Because of her centrist views and eagerness to get beyond partisan point scoring, Maine Republican Olympia Snowe is in the center of every policy debate in Washington."

Five years later, that passage reads like a joke, as Snowe goes along with the job-killing economic know-nothingism that has come to define her party and cripple the economy. Rather than acting like one of the nation's best senators, she's behaving like one of the worst by abdicating the responsibilities that come with her seniority and stature and empowering the lunatic fringe of her party rather than standing up to it. Whether she does so out of cynical partisanship or cowardice in the face of a possible primary challenge is perhaps an interesting question, but here's a more interesting one: What's the point of electing a supposedly moderate Republican if they're going to behave like a Tea Party Republican? What's the point of having a senior senator who sits on the Finance Committee if, like a freshman back-bencher, she's just going to ask for someone else to deal with tax reform?