Stuck in D.C.
February 16, 1999
Will the term-limits movement's drive to rid Washington of career politicians end up backfiring?
The grass-roots movement successfully convinced a number of lawmakers to pledge they'd leave Congress by a certain date. But a lot of those who've given up their public offices have decided they won't leave town.
Instead, they return to the halls of Congress as lobbyists, often better off than their former colleagues. Retired lawmakers have the same access and contacts as before - and can make much more money influencing policy rather than crafting it.
Retirements from the House have climbed steeply this decade. On average, 44.6 House members retired in each election cycle in the 1990s. That's up from 31.8 retirements in the 1980s.
Last fall, The New York Times noted that at least 22% of those who left Congress this decade and 128 ex-lawmakers overall are now lobbyists. Others work elsewhere in the Washington area, often in some policy-related pursuit.
Of the 589 persons listed as members of the Association of Former Members of Congress, 232 have Washington-area addresses.
As more retired lawmakers choose to stay in Washington, they reinforce the perception that people inside the Beltway may be more interested in wielding power than in serving the public.
Still, some who called it quits did return home.
Last year, 21 House members retired. One was Scott Klug, a Wisconsin Republican. ''I decided early on that I wanted to buy a business back home with some buddies,'' said Klug, who was first elected in 1990.
''I bought a small publishing company about a year ago,'' he said. He's now CEO of Wisconsin Trails Publishing, which puts out a regional travel magazine under the same title and other travel-related publications.
Fellow 1998 retiree Harris Fawell, an Illinois Republican, says he never considered staying in Washington. ''All my ties are here in the Midwest,'' he said. Fawell adds that even though he served seven terms on Capitol Hill, his family never moved from his suburban Chicago district.
More typical, though, is Bob Livingston, the Louisiana Republican and would-be House speaker who recently resigned his seat. The 55-year- old, 22-year Washington veteran moved his belongings blocks, rather than miles, away.
Livingston cited the need to build money for retirement as a reason for founding his lobbying firm, The Livingston Group. Like all former lawmakers, though, he can't directly lobby his old colleagues for a year. Livingston did not respond to a request for an interview for this story.
Bob Dole is another marquee name who remains embedded in Beltway politics. The longtime Republican leader resigned from the Senate to run for the White House in 1996.
At the time, Dole said he'd risk everything on a presidential race. If he lost, he'd return to Kansas.
Instead, Dole has stayed in Washington. He's done everything from trying to broker a peace deal between ethnic Serbs and Albanians in Kosovo to helping the National Football League speed the approval of a new owner for the Washington Redskins.
''Dole is - and I don't say it in a derogatory way - the classic Washington person, a mover and shaker in Washington,'' said Paul Hendrie, a spokesman for the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonprofit group that tracks the influence of campaign donations.
''After so many years, (Dole's) more a part of this community than he is a part of his community back in Kansas,'' Hendrie said.
It's possible that first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton may think that eight years in Washington is not enough. Speculation rages that she may not leave Washington when her husband's presidency ends but may instead run for the Senate from New York - even though she's never lived there.
Another 10 House members told their constituents they'd retire in 2000. Nine are Republicans, some of whom backed term limits explicitly or benefited from voter sentiment that ushered in a record number of GOP lawmakers in 1994 ee chart). Several are wavering from their earlier promises.
Colorado Republican Scott McInnis has already backed away from his pledge and said he'll run again in 2000.
The sole Democrat is hedging his term-limits promise as well. Elected in 1992 after pledging to serve only eight years, Marty Meehan of Massachusetts now says his promise was a mistake and he may run again.
But even Meehan's political allies aren't happy about that. Last week, the Boston Globe reported that fellow Bay State Democratic Rep. Barney Frank urged him to abide by that promise and leave Congress when his term ends.
Rep. George Nethercutt, R-Wash., is another wavering lawmaker. Nethercutt scored 1994's biggest single triumph in ousting incumbent Democratic House Speaker Tom Foley, whom Nethercutt portrayed as an out-of-touch career politician.
Why do people stay in Washington?
''I think the financial factor is huge. Most members can double and triple and quadruple their pay when they leave the Congress, unless they're quite old,'' said just-retired Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind., who now splits time between directing an academic center at Indiana University and directing the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.
Hamilton stresses another attraction. ''Many members who go into Congress are policy-oriented people,'' he said.
''They may not want to continue the unrelenting job of a member of Congress today, (but) they may want to be connected to policy. So they look for jobs that have a policy content to them,'' Hamilton said.
''The general rule would be that those who have been in Congress longer tend to stay in Washington more than those who have been here for less periods of time,'' he added. ''If you stay here long, invariably your contacts with (your) state weaken and your contacts with this area strengthen.''
Law firms and lobbying groups capitalize on the clout they get from having former lawmakers on staff.
For example, Dole works for the Washington office of the law firm of Verner, Liipfert, Bernhard and Hand. Among the firm's other heavyweights are former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, D-Maine, former Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, D-Texas, and former Texas Democratic Gov. Ann Richards.
Other former lawmakers who work in the Washington policy community include:
Sen. Howard Metzenbaum, D-Ohio, chairman, Consumer Federation of America
Sen. Howard Baker, R-Tenn., shareholder, Baker, Donelson, Bearman & Caldwell
Sen. Donald Riegle, D-Mich., chairman, Shandwick International Inc.
Rep. Dave McCurdy, D-Okla., president, Electronic Industries Alliance
Rep. Bob Walker, R-Pa., president, The Wexler Group
Rep. Vin Weber, R-Minn., partner, Clark & Weinstock
Other former members labor in specialized policy fields that rarely make news. ''In general, having been a member does give you a leg up in terms of contacting your former colleagues,'' Hamilton said.
Some analysts wonder whether the close-knit ties between former and current senators and House members further cut Washington off from the world outside the Beltway.
Hamilton doesn't accept that charge. But former Reps. Fawell and Klug and Hendrie of the Center for Responsive Politics see some merit in it.
Fawell thinks potential lawmakers should develop a career in their home districts before running for Congress.
''If you have built up some reserves, you don't have to stay in Washington,'' he said. ''I think a lot of (those) who stay in Washington do so because they don't have a source of income back home. They don't have the foundation that was there for me.''
Indeed, some lawmakers start their Washington careers well before voters elect them. For example, Reps. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y., once worked as aides to current senators.
Ryan left the staff of Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., to run for the House. (He had earlier worked for two other lawmakers.)
Weiner worked for six years in New York and Washington on the staff of then-Rep. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. Schumer won a Senate seat in November. Weiner won Schumer's old House seat.
Hendrie doesn't think Washington influence peddlers are any more isolated than the elites of Wall Street or Hollywood.
Still, he said, ''it's important that the country and the people feel that they have some ownership of their government and of Washington. Increasingly, people feel that it's not their city. It's this kind of alien place that's making the rules they have to live by.''
(C) Copyright 1999 Investors Business Daily, Inc.