Is Congress Simply No Fun Anymore?

Partisanship, gridlock have some former members of Congress glad to be gone

House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio performs a mock swearing in for Rep. Rodney Alexander, R-La., Thursday, Jan. 3, 2013, on Capitol Hill in Washington as the 113th Congress began. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)
National Journal
Elahe Izad
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Elahe Izad
Aug. 8, 2013, 3:30 p.m.

When Rep. Rod­ney Al­ex­an­der, R-La., an­nounced this week that he would re­tire from his seat after 10 years in the House, he cited his frus­tra­tions with the cur­rent grid­lock in Con­gress.

“Rather than pro­du­cing tan­gible solu­tions to bet­ter this na­tion, par­tis­an pos­tur­ing has cre­ated a le­gis­lat­ive stand­still,” he said in a state­ment. “Un­for­tu­nately, I do not fore­see this en­vir­on­ment to change any­time soon.”

Al­ex­an­der is not the only one who feels that way. Thanks to in­tense par­tis­an­ship, the in­ab­il­ity to move or con­trib­ute to le­gis­la­tion that be­comes law, de­mands to raise money, and the ear­mark ban, a num­ber of now-re­tired law­makers say life in Con­gress isn’t what it used to be.

“I thank God every night in my nightly pray­ers for giv­ing me the in­sight to de­cide in 2006 not to seek reelec­tion,” said former Rep. Sher­wood Boehlert, R-N.Y., who left after 24 years in Con­gress.

“Ci­vil­ity is a thing of the past,” he said. “It used to be “¦ the oth­er party was re­ferred to as ‘the oth­er side.’ Now they’re the archenemy and you shoot to kill on sight, and it is bizarre.”

Be­ing cor­di­al or en­ga­ging mem­bers of the op­pos­ite party has be­come more the ex­cep­tion rather than the norm, which is a mani­fest­a­tion of just how tox­ic the en­vir­on­ment on Cap­it­ol Hill has be­come. Former Rep. Brad Miller, D-N.C., who de­cided not to seek an­oth­er term last year after re­dis­trict­ing put him in the same dis­trict as fel­low Demo­crat­ic Rep. Dav­id Price, said the situ­ation in the House had got­ten “pro­foundly worse” in the 10 years he was there.

“There were a hand­ful of Re­pub­lic­ans that I got along with, but it got in­creas­ingly hard for them to work with Demo­crats,” Miller said.

Bill Gal­ston, a seni­or fel­low in gov­ernance stud­ies at the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion, is cofounder of No La­bels, which has or­gan­ized 82 Demo­crats and Re­pub­lic­ans in­to a group dubbed the “Prob­lem Solv­ers Co­ali­tion.” A num­ber of the law­makers in the co­ali­tion “have been pressed and quer­ied back home, ‘Why are you break­ing bread with the en­emy?’ ” he said.

“Al­though par­tis­an­ship is an en­dur­ing part of Amer­ic­an polit­ics, the type of hy­per-par­tis­an­ship we see now — I can’t find a pre­ced­ent for it in the past 100 years,” Gal­ston said.

The grow­ing num­ber of law­makers in the Prob­lem Solv­ers Co­ali­tion from across the polit­ic­al spec­trum un­der­scores that there are mem­bers who want al­tern­at­ives to the in­tense par­tis­an­ship that char­ac­ter­izes the cur­rent Con­gress, Gal­ston said.

The poster child for dis­may at the cur­rent state of af­fairs is former Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, said Gal­ston, not­ing that her “total frus­tra­tion at hy­per-par­tis­an­ship and grid­lock” is a wide­spread sen­ti­ment.

When an­noun­cing her re­tire­ment, Snowe said that “what mo­tiv­ates me is pro­du­cing res­ults,” but “I find it frus­trat­ing … that an at­mo­sphere of po­lar­iz­a­tion and ‘my way or the high­way’ ideo­lo­gies has be­come per­vas­ive in cam­paigns and in our gov­ern­ing in­sti­tu­tions.” Snowe has in­stead sought to in­flu­ence the polit­ic­al dis­course from out­side the Sen­ate through the Bi­par­tis­an Policy Cen­ter’s Com­mis­sion on Polit­ic­al Re­form.

Of course, much also de­pends on what brought mem­bers to Con­gress in the first place. “If your de­sire is to get something done, then you’re go­ing to be very frus­trated,” Gal­ston said. But for those mem­bers “who came to Wash­ing­ton to wage ideo­lo­gic­al war on what they see as a bi­par­tis­an status quo,” he said, “if you ask them, they will say that gum­ming up the works is not part of the prob­lem, it’s part of the solu­tion. They’re ac­tu­ally happy when le­gis­la­tion doesn’t pass, un­less it’s the kind of le­gis­la­tion that they ap­prove of.”

The in­ab­il­ity to pass le­gis­la­tion and work across party lines has cer­tainly been a ma­jor part of a num­ber of re­cent re­tire­ments. Former Rep. Steven La­Tour­ette, R-Ohio, who re­tired in Janu­ary, re­cently told Na­tion­al Journ­al Daily, “I miss Con­gress like I miss an abs­cessed tooth.”

La­Tour­ette ad­ded: “I couldn’t see things get­ting ac­com­plished in pos­it­ive ways. We used to solve prob­lems like stu­dent loans and trans­port­a­tion and the farm bill.”

Be­ing a mem­ber of Con­gress these days also means the in­creased de­mand to spend time each day di­al­ing for dol­lars. Miller, who says he would have sought reelec­tion if his dis­trict hadn’t been re­drawn, said rais­ing money has be­come more and more in­teg­ral for mem­bers’ suc­cess on the Hill — par­tic­u­larly for those of the minor­ity party who have little to no in­flu­ence over shap­ing or in­tro­du­cing le­gis­la­tion “that is any­thing more than a talk­ing point.”

“The only way to get no­ticed, to win re­spect, is to raise a lot of money” to give to oth­er mem­bers, Miller said. “It’s hard to ima­gine that that’s really what demo­cracy should really be about. It means that mem­bers of Con­gress have to spend their time in a little room with a phone, call­ing up lob­by­ists and ask­ing them to con­trib­ute from their PACs, then rush­ing to the floor to vote on a lot of is­sues that very few mem­bers have had time to think about and cer­tainly not to shape in any im­port­ant way.”

Boehlert, whose last reelec­tion cost roughly $1.5 mil­lion, said he didn’t have to spend so much of his time rais­ing money in his last cycle. But “a dis­pro­por­tion­ate share of the mem­ber’s time is spent di­al­ing for dol­lars,” he said. “When you sit in your of­fice and open up a let­ter that is from the party headquar­ters, and it’s the party caucus over at the Re­pub­lic­an Cap­it­ol Hill Club, you know what that’s all about. Money.”

On top of it all, the ear­mark ban has left mem­bers of Con­gress with few­er tools to make a dir­ect and quick im­pact on their in­di­vidu­al dis­tricts, Boehlert said.

Be­ing in Con­gress still has its up­sides — you still get to in­flu­ence the dis­course of the day and have ac­cess to in­form­a­tion, over­sight and money. Life after Con­gress isn’t bad either, as many former mem­bers do well for them­selves on K Street or else­where.

Boehlert says he does miss some things about life as a con­gress­man, from be­ing in the mix on de­cision-mak­ing to the “con­geni­al­ity that used to be so much a part of that great in­sti­tu­tion,” he said. “But boy, I just don’t miss what I see now.”

Gal­ston said the tox­ic at­mo­sphere is prob­ably dis­cour­aging many would-be can­did­ates. “I sus­pect that a whole lot of people, who in oth­er cir­cum­stances might have con­sidered run­ning for na­tion­al le­gis­lat­ive of­fice, have de­cided not to on the grounds that it’s too hard to get things done, and also too hard to do what it takes, par­tic­u­larly if you’re a mem­ber of the House of Rep­res­ent­at­ives, to stay there,” he said.

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