The most pressing issue in American politics this November shouldn’t be who’s going to win seats in the House of Representatives, but who’s most likely to lose them: moderates in swing districts. We’ve set up a system that rewards the most partisan representatives with all-but-lifetime tenure while forcing many of those who work toward legislative compromises to wage an endless, soul-sapping fight for political survival.
Thanks to today’s expertly drawn congressional districts, most lawmakers represent seats that are either overwhelmingly Republican or overwhelmingly Democratic. As long as House members appeal to their party’s base, they’re in okay shape—a strategy that has helped yield a 98 percent reelection rate on Capitol Hill. Short of being indicted or nabbed by the FBI, scandal- ridden incumbents in safe districts usually don’t have to worry much about paying the ultimate political price. Ken Calvert, a Republican representative from California, was caught in a car with a prostitute during his first term but, after putting out campaign literature implying that his Democratic opponent was gay, held on to his seat. Last year Calvert and a business partner bought a four-acre parcel of land in Riverside County for $550,000; after securing federal funds for the expansion of a nearby freeway interchange, along with federal money to support commercial development in the area, they sold the property for nearly $1 million. But Democrats say they are not running a serious challenger against Calvert, because the seat leans strongly Republican.
This sort of voter segregation has created a legislative body whose members belong to factions at the opposite ends of the ideological spectrum and rarely engage each other. Members spend as little time in Washington as possible, rushing home to districts where they are surrounded by people who think like they do. “Bottom line, the big picture is there are a hundred Republicans who never talk to Democrats on the floor, and a hundred Democrats who never talk to Republicans on the floor,” says Collin Peterson, a Minnesota Democrat who occasionally sits with the Republicans on the House floor and does not vote a strict party line. “They don’t know each other, they don’t like each other, and they don’t trust each other.” The House is, quite simply, a meaner place than it used to be, in part because so many of the men and women who work there are strangers to one another. They have moved from the corrupt coziness of the 1960s to an even unhealthier polarization.
A proven track record of reaching across the aisle hasn’t exactly bought political protection for the remaining moderates. Charlie Stenholm, a Texas Democrat, cosponsored President Bush’s plan to privatize Social Security, yet Texas Republicans ensured his defeat in 2004 by redrawing his congressional district in 2003. Even in this summer’s congressional primaries, several candidates lost in part because their opponents successfully attacked their efforts at bipartisan cooperation. Many of the few dozen incumbents facing competitive races this November are also moderates, who represent districts divided more or less evenly between Republicans and Democrats. Christopher Shays, a Republican representative from Connecticut, has collaborated with Democrats on issues ranging from campaign-finance reform to the environment, but this summer Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Rahm Emanuel approached Shays in the House gym, slung his arm around him, and said, “As one good friend to another: we’re going to spend two and a half million against you.”
For swing-district representatives like Shays, the day-to-day demands—and indignities—that confront any member trying to stay in office are that much harder. To get a sense of how tight a race Shays faces this year against his opponent, Westport Democrat Diane Farrell, consider this: on June 18—Father’s Day—he was throwing the first pitch at the championship game of the Fairfield County Connecticut Jewish Little League. And it was the minor-league championship. Not only had Shays been hoping for a day off from campaigning, but he dreaded the thought of muffing the opening pitch. The only official duty Shays dislikes more, in fact, is pulling the winning ticket for a luxury car out of a hat. As he calculates it, “There’s only one winner, and there are 300 to 500 losers—a disastrous situation if you’re aiming to win support in a tight election. Since the odds of success are much better at a Jewish Little League contest (Shays was just throwing a pitch over an empty plate, rather than, say, calling strikes and balls on the kids of potential donors), the congressman showed up that Sunday afternoon, in the broiling heat, sporting his usual khakis and button-down shirt.
Shays is, one can say without exaggeration, one of the nicest members of the House of Representatives. He worked the Little League crowd easily, shaking hands with constituents and brushing aside their thanks for having chosen to spend part of his weekend with them. “Thank you. I love representing you,” he said to one couple, before turning to their two young sons. “Hey, guys, I’m Chris. And your name is—?” Doling out White House tour passes, Shays joked with voters about his own uncertain reelection prospects. “Does this come with an expiration date?” asked Sharon Risch, a Fairfield resident who took his business card, on which was written Shays’s promise of a personal escort to the White House gate. “Well, I have to get reelected. That gives you an incentive,” he replied.
Shays, at least, has an easy time fund-raising, because he represents one of the wealthiest congressional districts in the country. He doesn’t have to plead personally for contributions; if he sends out a direct-mail appeal to his constituents, they usually respond with sizable checks. Other lawmakers have to hustle. Sarah Feinberg, a Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokeswoman, estimates that incumbent members in a competitive race spend “twenty-five hours a week” fund-raising, while challengers devote “forty to fifty hours a week” to literally dialing for dollars.
Heather Wilson, the forty-five-year-old five-term Republican from New Mexico, is an Air Force Academy graduate and a former Rhodes scholar; she is also something of an anomaly among the representatives whose seats are up for grabs. While Democratic voters in her district have an edge over Republicans, she has voted with her party 87 percent of the time since Bush took office, showing enough of an independent streak that Democrats sometimes have trouble depicting her as a GOP crony. Wilson sided with Democrats to ask the Bush administration to reveal the true cost of its expensive Medicare drug program, and she recently introduced legislation that would require administration officials to brief Congress on electronic surveillance. But because the Democrats think she’s vulnerable, her fund-raising challenge is even greater than usual. Last election, her opponent and national Democrats spent $3.3 million against her. In the previous four contests, her opponents spent more than $10 million trying to win—and that’s not counting the money liberal advocacy groups have poured into her races. Wilson estimates that she will need to raise $4 million this year to emerge victorious. Her opponent, New Mexico Attorney General Patricia Madrid, has already raised nearly $2 million, and expects to raise “nearly as much” as Wilson.
In addition to the fourteen-hour workday Wilson often puts in—soliciting money, sitting on the Energy and Commerce Committee and the Intelligence Committee, and taking care of constituents—she faces a grueling weekly commute that takes seven hours each way (if all goes smoothly) between her studio in Washington and her full-time residence in Albuquerque. Wilson’s family is used to this: her daughter, Cait, was just over eighteen months old when her mother first won federal office, and by age three she had developed a hand signal to use when she wanted undivided attention in the face of Wilson’s official demands: she clenches her hand in a fist, like an O, and then splays her three middle fingers downward: Ordinary Mom. (When Cait was younger and would say “I want you” over the phone to Wilson, the congresswoman recalls, “it was almost physically painful.”)
Despite some help from the party and the White House, Wilson shoulders most of the fund-raising and campaigning burden herself. One day in early July, she spent part of her morning calling local firefighters, one by one, urging them to show up on July 13 for their union’s congressional-endorsement vote. Just before lunch she reached Jeremy Polk, a loyal supporter and member of the Bernalillo Fire Department, whose six-year-old son, Austin, had posed in one of Wilson’s campaign posters. “I think we’ve got a lot of friends in the fire department, and I just want them to know it might be a close vote, and I’d be honored to earn your support again,” she told Polk. At the close of the conversation, she added that she’d be sure to look for Austin when she next saw a Bounty commercial, since the towheaded youngster is now in the business of plugging paper towels. And there you have Wilson’s life in a nutshell: chatting about paper-towel ads with a union guy, in between meeting with a local semiconductor company and lunching with women business leaders at the local Olive Garden.
The only people who put in longer hours than imperiled rank-and-file members are those who lead them. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi works fourteen-hour days whether or not Congress is in session. (Many Hill watchers wonder how the sixty-six-year-old Pelosi can toil so hard while remaining immaculately dressed and consistently perky. One answer: massive consumption of high-quality chocolate.) Pelosi’s schedule between 1:15 p.m. on Friday, June 23, and 9:00 p.m. on Monday, June 26, featured stops in Providence; Cambridge, Massachusetts; San Juan; Pittsburgh; and Washington, D.C., and included five fund-raisers, three media appearances, two official meetings, one charity event, and a dinner for members of Congress that she hosted in her own home. During that single eighty-hour period, she raised $1 million for House Democrats. House Speaker Dennis Hastert is working just as hard: by election day he will have campaigned for at least 200 House Republicans—which is to say, nearly all of them.
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.”