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
Add to Briefcase
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.

What We're Following See More »
ANOTHER NUCLEAR OPTION?
Byrd Rule Could Trip Up Health Legislation
12 hours ago
THE DETAILS

"Even if House Republicans manage to get enough members of their party on board with the latest version of their health care bill, they will face another battle in the Senate: whether the bill complies with the chamber’s arcane ... Byrd rule, which stipulates all provisions in a reconciliation bill must affect federal spending and revenues in a way that is not merely incidental." Democrats should have the advantage in that fight, "unless the Senate pulls another 'nuclear option.'”

Source:
ONE WEEK
Senate Votes To Fund Government
1 days ago
BREAKING
ON TO SENATE
House Passes Spending Bill
1 days ago
BREAKING

The House has passed a one-week spending bill that will avert a government shutdown which was set to begin at midnight. Lawmakers now have an extra week to come to a longer agreement which is expected to fund the government through the end of the fiscal year in September. The legislation now goes to the Senate, where it is expected to pass before President Trump signs it.

PRESIDENT CALLS MEDICAID FUNDS A “BAILOUT”
Puerto Rico Another Sticking Point in Budget Talks
2 days ago
THE DETAILS

President Trump’s portrayal of an effort to funnel more Medicaid dollars to Puerto Rico as a "bailout" is complicating negotiations over a continuing resolution on the budget. "House Democrats are now requiring such assistance as a condition for supporting the continuing resolution," a position that the GOP leadership is amenable to. "But Mr. Trump’s apparent skepticism aligns him with conservative House Republicans inclined to view its request as a bailout, leaving the deal a narrow path to passage in Congress."

Source:
POTENTIAL GOVERNMENT SHUTDOWN?
Democrats Threaten Spending Bill Over Obamacare
2 days ago
BREAKING

Democrats in the House are threatening to shut down the government if Republicans expedite a vote on a bill to repeal and replace Obamacare, said Democratic House Whip Steny Hoyer Thursday. Lawmakers have introduced a one-week spending bill to give themselves an extra week to reach a long-term funding deal, which seemed poised to pass easily. However, the White House is pressuring House Republicans to take a vote on their Obamacare replacement Friday to give Trump a legislative victory, though it is still not clear that they have the necessary votes to pass the health care bill. This could go down to the wire.

Source:
×
×

Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.

Login