Is Congress Simply No Fun Anymore?

Elahe Izadi

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.