Running for Their Lives

Neglected children, hellish commutes, shrill coworkers, and first pitches at Little League games— why it’s no picnic to be a moderate in the House of Representatives

Shays doesn’t complain about putting so much into coddling constituents and performing other official duties, noting, “Nobody makes you run for this.” But having fought against his own leadership for seven years to pass campaign-finance reform, and having been deprived—as punishment for his success—of the committee chairmanship he was due to inherit, he sometimes wonders why he is being tagged as a Republican clone. In the pettiness and intensity of its malice, the House has begun to resemble the 1989 dark comedy Heathers, with elected officials in the role of high-school girls. Because one Democrat doesn’t want her party to know that she’s discussing policy with Shays, he has to call her on his cell phone when they are on the House floor, instead of talking with her directly. One moderate Democrat, whose party leaders barred him from working with Shays because it could boost the Connecticut lawmaker’s reelection prospects, says he does not understand why top Democrats outlawed such collaborations as early as May. “It used to be you were able to govern until Labor Day,” he said. “Now it’s absolute warfare.”

That atmosphere has prompted some of the most serious, policy-minded lawmakers to exit the political stage. Democrat Tim Roemer, a former representative from Indiana who has four children between the ages of six and thirteen, decided to retire in 2002 because the personal sacrifices were no longer worth the meager policy gains he could eke out. He now heads the Center for National Policy, teaches at George Mason University, and lectures on national-security issues. Roemer says:

When you’re sitting in a VFW hall in a small town in Indiana at nine o’clock at night and you’ve missed a baseball game, a play, or one of your children’s first words, you’re scratching your head, thinking, “Why in the world am I working so hard to get back to Washington, where I can’t get much done?” I’m very happy with the decision I’ve made. That makes me a little bit sad. It’s sort of a sad reflection on what the place has become.

For his part, Shays sometimes envies close friends who have reaped massive rewards by opting out of an increasingly bitter political game. James C. Greenwood, a Pennsylvania Republican, fought many of the same legislative battles as Shays before he decided to leave Congress altogether and take the helm of the Biotechnology Industry Organization in January 2005. “He’s doing what he loves, and he’s earning nearly $900,000 a year,” Shays says as he gets out of the car for his next campaign stop, an adult minor-league baseball game in Bridgeport. “He’s making $70,000 a month. Think about that.”

One of the only times former House Majority Leader Richard K. Armey got truly angry at his executive assistant was when she decided, in response to public criticism that lawmakers earned too much money, to calculate how much Armey earned an hour. She established that it averaged $3.57. “Don’t you dare tell my wife,” said the Texas Republican. He now makes close to $1 million a year, giving speeches and working as a rainmaker at the international law firm DLA Piper Rudnick Gray Cary. As work conditions in Congress become more disheartening, the prospect of reaping a financial windfall as a lobbyist becomes more alluring. According to a study released by Public Citizen’s Congress Watch last year, nearly half of all lawmakers now reentering the private sector become lobbyists—a move that makes good financial sense when you consider that lobbyists charge new clients almost twice as much now as they did six years ago.

The Hill’s nasty environment has, of course, not only demoralized members of Congress; it has also alienated voters. Peter Hart, a prominent Democratic pollster who, with Republican Bill McInturff, regularly surveys voters for NBC News/Wall Street Journal, released polls in July showing that just 33 percent of respondents approved of the Republican Party. But the Democratic Party didn’t have much to crow about: it had an approval rating of just 32 percent in these same surveys. Voters “see what’s happening. They are repulsed, turned off by it,” Hart says. California Democratic Representative Bob Filner, a former civil-rights activist and history professor at San Diego State University, waxes nostalgic for the days immediately after September 11, when Americans suddenly developed a sense of respect for government officials: “I could walk into a room with other elected officials, and there would be a standing ovation. I would turn around and wonder who was there.”

Filner’s nostalgia notwithstanding, the price of restoring public respect for Congress is more lawmakers losing their jobs more often. This prescription might seem paradoxical, given the nastiness of close races. But it’s hard to instill broad accountability in elected officials whose political livelihoods are assured as long as they cater to ideological extremists. Only through the spread of competitive districts can the House as an institution regain the habits of comity and cooperation that have made it an effective legislative body. Representatives who must answer to a wider constituency to win reelection are more likely to reach across the aisle to solve their constituents’, and their country’s, problems. Over time, such a shift in climate may make the job less grueling and more appealing to people like Christopher Shays, Collin Peterson, and Heather Wilson.

For now, Wilson still likes her job, particularly when she feels she’s actively helping voters in her district: she recently got a letter from a woman who said that without Wilson’s help in securing veteran’s disability benefits for her husband, the couple would have lost their home. Wilson keeps the letter in her desk in the Cannon Office Building, because occasionally her constituents ask her how she manages to do the people’s business in Washington while also raising her children with her husband in Albuquerque, and running a costly reelection campaign. It’s a question she herself ponders at times.

“The question isn’t how,” Wilson says. “That’s a matter of logistics. The question is why.”

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Juliet Eilperin is a national reporter for The Washington Post and the author of Fight Club Politics.

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