Congress Is No Fun Anymore

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Congress isn't as much fun as it used to be because lots of the perks, like free food from lobbyists, are gone, while the moderate pay and low public esteem remain. And also because, for some, it's harder to master the horse trading behind closed doors that helps an ambitious politician rise in the ranks.

"I’m used to being a player," Rep. Dan Boren complains to Politico's Jonathan Allen, explaining that he's quitting Congress in part because it's harder to be a big deal in Washington these days, especially now that it's harder to do earmarks. "You want to get things done for your constituents. If you can’t ever become speaker or a committee chairman, why are you doing it?" the Oklahoma Democrat said. You might think Boren doesn't mind sounding like a man more obsessed with his own power than policy now that he's not running for office. You'd be wrong! In January 2010, Boren predicted (correctly) that Democrats would lose their majority in the  midterm elections that year in an interview with Tulsa World's Jim Meyers. But he also predicted (incorrectly) that that would make him far more powerful. "If we have a tight majority one way or another, that puts me in the driver's seat,'' Boren said. "In the 112th (Congress), I probably will have the most influence I have ever had, no matter who has the majority." For Boren, that was not to be.

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Boren is leaving behind a mixed record of bipartisan accomplishment. He opposed the Iraq surge in 2007. He supported the Fair Tax, which would replace the income tax with a national sales tax. That would put a much heavier tax burden on the people with the least amount of money, and even Grover Norquist opposes it. He's pictured above (third from left) with then-President George W. Bush signing the Native American Home Ownership Opportunity Act, which, the press release said, was "legislation [that] reaffirms the Administration’s commitment to increasing minority homeownership by guaranteeing private mortgage loans made to eligible Natives American families, tribes, and tribal housing entities." That was in 2007, just before the housing bubble burst.

Other departing moderates also have records that don't always make the case for bipartisanship. “Why would you spend all the time raising money, run for office and go through the nastiness that’s part of a general modern political campaign to come here and be involved in gridlock? They come here to get something done,” retiring independent Sen. Joe Lieberman told Allen. The things he's most famous for getting done are the Iraq war and Sunday show appearances urging federal intervention into Terri Schiavo's medical care. Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe wrote explained her retirement in The Washington Post as follows:“I have spoken on the floor of the Senate for years about the dysfunction and political polarization in the institution." New York's Jonathan Chait notes that Snowe's moderation has been more about self-preservation than good government. Example: "When Barack Obama proposed a large fiscal stimulus in 2009, Snowe (citing fears of deficits that she had helped create) decided to shave a nice round $100 billion off his figure and call it a day."

Still all these departing moderates complaining about not getting anything done sure sounds familiar. We read that it's worse than it's ever been in this New York Times op-ed titled "Why I Am Leaving the Senate" -- published May 13, 1994 by David L. Boren, Rep. Boren's dad.

At the end of certain days, I sometimes asked myself what I had really done to help solve the major problems facing our country. My honest answer was: not much.

Today's Senate is not the body I joined 16 years ago. Partisanship is much stronger... Too much time has to be spent raising money for campaigns instead of working on critical problems.  The Senate has become a fragmented set of individual empires and political fiefdoms, with almost 300 committees and subcommittees. The average senator serves on 12 different panels.

Ah, but his kid thought the panels were the best part!

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.