It's No Fun Being in Congress

GEORGE F. WILL

November 18, 1991|By GEORGE F. WILL

WASHINGTON — Washington. - Donald Pease wants it crystal clear that his decision to leave Congress at the end of this, his eighth term, does not derive from job dissatisfaction. He likes the work. That's his story and he's sticking to it.

And it's true. Sort of. Up to a point.

This northeast Ohio Democrat speaks with evident sincerity of the pleasures of attending hundreds of pancake breakfasts and rotary lunches and spaghetti suppers and weddings of daughters of people who ring doorbells for him. And if just reading the list makes you weary, you are not cut out for Congress. Your consolation can be that you are normal.

Thirty years ago Mr. Pease began the career that led from the Oberlin city council through both houses of Ohio's legislature to Congress. When he became a professional politician, meaning one who regards elective office as a career rather than a leave of absence from one, he made, as a matter of course, a decision normal for that abnormal life, a decision that speaks volumes about, and conditions, the tone of American politics.

He decided on ''immersion'' in politics, ''to go every place, accept any invitation, never to make personal plans.'' It would, he thought, make him a good in-touch representative.

If, he says, friends invite him to dinner two weeks in advance, he thinks: Better wait a week and see if some event -- a Farm Bureau meeting, perhaps -- might conflict. ''It is,'' he says, ''part of the psychology of politicians that you can never do enough.''

A coronary bypass operation and then heart-valve surgery have slowed him this much: He has, he says, trimmed his travel to and from and around his district enough to lower the odds on his

re-election to 5-to-1.

Those odds are quite comfortable but are way below the 10-to-1 that incumbents want in order to produce -- what the vast majority had in 1990 -- negligible opposition. (Most had no opponent, or an opponent with trivial funds, or an opponent with less than half the incumbent's funds.)

The country's condition he anticipates 10 years hence is ''not good.'' ''Already it's not pleasant being in Congress.'' There is no consensus in the country about what government should do and, because of deficits (and first the Gramm-Rudman restraints, and now the 1990 budget agreement), there are no fiscal tools to work with, anyway.

There are, he says, two ways to curb deficits, spending cuts and tax increases. Voters hate both. Actually, there is a third way, economic growth, but from Mr. Pease's district that looks impossible.

The district has Cleveland suburbs and a steel mill, two automobile assembly plants and many dairy farms. It has lost upward of 15,000 high-paying blue-collar jobs in the last decade.

A shipyard that employed 1,500 people has closed. It built boats that brought iron ore to many Midwestern steel mills now closed. Workers at the mill in his district are anxious about what, if anything, President Bush will do when the voluntary restraint agreement on steel imports expires in April.

In the salad days of the 1970s, automotive assembly-line workers were working 60 hours a week, including 20 hours overtime, pushing their annual earnings to as much as $50,000. Today the lines are apt to be closed every other week.

Many of his constituents are feeling the anxieties that elected Harris Wofford to Pennsylvania's Senate seat, anxieties that are produced by industrial decline and that produce the defensive politics of new entitlements (such as national health insurance) and protectionism. Backers of the U.S.-Mexico free-trade agreement should be anxious.

Mr. Pease is depressed by the governmental paralysis that prevents creative action. But he wants it clearly understood that he likes the job. Mr. Pease says, ''The demands of a congressional career can tend to crowd out other facets of a person's life'' but ''I'm not complaining. I recognized the trade-offs and I accepted them willingly. I would do so again.''

But the satisfaction of House service is supposed to come from participation in national success. ''Rationalize as we might, the truth is that we are in charge while our nation's future is being mortgaged and its economic strength sapped. . . . The bottom line is that we have failed. It's depressing to be part of the corporate 'we.' ''

Fourteen months from now he won't be.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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