FORTUNE — If Olympia Snowe were House Speaker John Boehner, she would have done a few things differently.
“I would never have agreed to the strategy of delaying or defunding the Affordable Care Act,” she said. “It certainly wasn’t a winning strategy. And it clearly wasn’t an achievable strategy in a divided government.”
Her other would-be priority for Congress, “is doing your job.” The House and Senate should have passed budget and appropriations bills without extensive delays, she said. “I believe in getting in front of the train,” she said. “Not being run over by it.”
Snowe, a Republican senator from Maine who resigned last year over frustrations about partisan gridlock and inaction, spoke Wednesday at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Summit. Her comments came as lawmakers showed signs of reaching a long overdue debt-ceiling deal, just hours before the government would lose the ability to manage its debts.
Snowe offered a dour assessment of the legislature’s recent track record. “We have deferred every major issue for the last two years,” she said. “This will be regarded as the lost year.”
In order to give Congress a greater incentive to act, Snowe has advocated that lawmakers not get paychecks unless they pass a budget. “Right now, we’re in the fourth year in which the United States of America is operating without a budget,” she said. Instead of working through the country’s challenges, many key issues are simply never discussed, let alone solved.
It was that frustration over Congress’s inability to make even simple decisions that drove her to quit, Snowe said Wednesday. It wasn’t an easy call. She said she woke up worried in the middle of the night shortly before she had to turn in her signatures to secure a place on the ballot. She was all set for her reelection bid, but she couldn’t reconcile the type of work she wanted to do with the type of workplace the Senate had become. Snowe said she ultimately resigned partially to “reaffirm people’s frustration, but more than that, to tell America how you can change it.” Voters should not “settle for the lowest common denominator in terms of leadership,” she said.
The solution? More political engagement. The alternative is little to no accountability, particularly for the more volatile factions within the House and Senate. “We get the government we demand,” Snowe said. “If we value bipartisanship and collaboration, we’ll get it. But if we don’t, we won’t.”
The choice for voters is stark, she said: “If we allow our political system to be subjugated to the fringe factions or to ideological interests or the podium-thumping belligerents that we’re witnessing today, then that’s the government we’re going to get.”