Since Sen. Olympia Snowe announced that she will not stand for re-election, a consensus has developed that her decision is closely intertwined with the partisanship and gridlock that have plagued Congress for more than a decade.

In the wake of Sen. Snowe’s announcement, Americans are right to be angry with the state of our policymaking institutions and frustrated with the polarization of our representatives. Unfortunately, we rarely seem to progress beyond laments that Congress is populated with people who are entirely self-interested, entirely ideological or some combination of the two. These reactions fail to offer a framework for understanding the current dynamic or for beginning to construct solutions to the negativity that is so disturbing to Sen. Snowe and to many Americans.

The first of Americans’ criticisms of Congress, cited by Sen. Snowe as one motivation for her decision, is that members of Congress are too wedded to extreme ideological views that don’t reflect mainstream American thinking. The question we have to ask ourselves is whether polarization in Congress simply reflects polarization among Americans generally, or whether there’s something about Congress that leads representatives to take extreme positions.

In my view, the method by which we draw congressional districts suggests that the latter may be a factor. It is indisputable that pure partisan advantage is now the animating principle that guides the creation of the vast majority of the House’s 435 congressional districts. Folks who wonder why we are so divided as a nation should look to the way that state legislatures use redistricting to physically divide Americans based on their political views.

This system inevitably exacerbates polarization by creating huge swathes of “safe seats” that, in effect, belong to only one political party. Once in possession of a safe seat, the controlling party no longer needs to worry whether its nominee will appeal to anyone but the party faithful. Consequently that party populates the seat with the most ideologically extreme candidate possible.

While we should be outraged by this system, it is wrong to direct that outrage solely at particular lawmakers or parties. Gerrymandering is a systemic problem that should be addressed with comprehensive reform. Congress should do everything in its power to compel or incentivize the states to adopt party-blind redistricting processes, such as the ones employed in Iowa and most recently adopted in California.

The second criticism cited by Sen. Snowe and since echoed by the public is that Congress is mired in gridlock and paralysis. But we have to be clear about where, precisely, the system is breaking down. The truth is, the House of Representatives moves like a juggernaut. In this very Congress, the House GOP easily passed Rep. Paul Ryan’s fiscal plan, which would dramatically alter our nation’s taxing, spending and entitlement policies. The House is able to pass such major pieces of legislation not because House members are more committed public servants than their Senate counterparts, but because the House procedural rules don’t permit the minority party to obstruct legislation.

In contrast, the Senate gives substantial power not only to the minority party, but even to individual senators. In 2010, Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby used Senate rules to stall the confirmation of some of President Obama’s nominees because Sen. Shelby wanted to pressure the president into awarding federal contracts to certain Alabama companies. The result was that executive positions went unfilled for longer than they had to.

Sen. Shelby’s actions seemed like an inappropriate abuse of power, and he was roundly criticized. But this sort of criticism is misguided if it is directed only at Sen. Shelby. Lawmakers of both parties will use every legal tool at their disposal to advance the goals they think important. This is a good impulse. The question is whether the tools the Senate rules give them are appropriate.

In my view, the Senate rules have choked the body and have prevented it from addressing the important issues facing the country. As much as I wouldn’t mind replacing some specific members of the Senate, it’s clear that the Senate needs to modernize its rules and procedures.

Changing the rules of the road will not solve all of our problems. There always will be bad drivers and we need a robust debate about the standards to which they should be held. But the rules of the road are important, and we will have missed an opportunity if we fail to consider how these rules have created the dynamic that led to Sen. Snowe’s departure.

Nolan L. Reichl is a lawyer living in Cape Elizabeth. A graduate of Stanford Law School, Reichl was an aide to Pennsylvania Gov. Edward G. Rendell before embarking on his legal career.