Frustration, scandal lead dozens of members out of Congress

April 09, 1992|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,Congressional Quarterly/ Compiled by Roman S. Ponos Washington BureauWashington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Frustrated by legislative stalemate, marred by scandal and just simply eager to do something else, members of Congress are retiring at near-record numbers.

Those voluntary departures, coupled with expected heavy losses at the polls this November, could bring the greatest crop of new lawmakers to Capitol Hill in two decades -- if not two generations.

Among those leaving are members tainted by the House bank scandal, together with legislative stalwarts like Sen. Warren B. Rudman, the well-respected New Hampshire Republican who co-wrote the deficit-reduction law.

Mr. Rudman joined a growing chorus of members who are annoyed at legislative gridlock. "I do not see this Congress doing what has to be done while we have the time to do it," he said.

And Sen. Tim Wirth, a Colorado Democrat, announced yesterday that he also would not seek re-election, saying President Bush "shirks his duty" and the Congress embarks on "pointless maneuvering." The result is a government in "stalemate," he said.

The 1992 election year was expected to bring political changes, largely through the once-a-decade congressional redistricting, which forced members into new political turf or into races against House colleagues.

But other reasons have emerged for stepping aside: the taint of the House bank scandal, a desire to run for another office. For those elected before 1979, part of the decision to retire may have included the fact they are permitted to turn unspent campaign cash into personal use if they retire by the end of this year.

Among those eligible to keep hundreds of thousands of dollars are retiring Reps. Brian Donnelly, a Massachusetts Democrat ($541,000), John Paul Hammerschmidt, an Arkansas Republican ($403,000), and Ed Jenkins, a Georgia Democrat ($467,000).

Still, some, like Reps. Frank Guarini, a New Jersey Democrat, and Andy Ireland, a Republican of Florida, felt it was just time to go.

"I had a life before Congress, and I'll have a life after it," said Mr. Guarini, a 14-year veteran, who said the Founding Fathers didn't envision a lifetime career on Capitol Hill.

Five were forced into retirement through primary losses. Given voters' irritable "throw 'em out" mood, the fall contest could produce the highest number of new faces in Washington since 1974, or even 1932, said lawmakers and political observers.

seven senators have said they will not run again. Others are expected to follow, creating the biggest retirement since 1978, when 49 House members left.

Some political observers are wondering whether 1992 will rival the "Watergate class" of 1974, when 93 House members and nine new senators came to Washington.

Still others are saying the changes may come close to 1932, the year Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected and 165 freshmen House members and 15 senators came to Capitol Hill, according to the House historian, Ray Smock.

Both those watershed years produced a flurry of reforms and legislation. After the 1974 elections, freshman members helped overthrow powerful committee chairmen and cleaned up the financing of campaigns. And the 1932 elections paved the way for the swirl of New Deal legislation.

Charles Cook, a political analyst, predicted the 1992 congressional class will be "somewhat more conservative and somewhat more Republican" than the current membership, given the anti-Congress tone of many candidates across the nation. And like the 1974 class, next year's large freshmen population could embrace an "outsider" image and have a disproportionate share of influence in the House.

Mr. Cook said the new members could help push through xTC legislation dealing again with campaign finance -- along with ethics and lobbying, some of which is stalled in partisan debate. "They'll try to show they are notably different than the Congress before them," he said.

"I think it will rival 1932, with the number of new faces," said Rep. Guy Vander Jagt of Michigan, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. He agreed that many new members will be "fairly conservative."

There are 268 Democrats and 166 Republicans in the House. Mr. Vander Jagt said the November elections could push the GOP past the party's most recent high of 192 seats, achieved with the 1980 Reagan landslide.

Those new Republicans, in league with conservative Democrats, helped Mr. Reagan enact tax cuts and other legislative priorities, said Mr. Vander Jagt, adding wistfully: "There was an air of change around here."

The 1992 Republicans could help enact "real campaign finance" reform and a capital gains tax cut, he said.

Rep. Kweisi Mfume, a Baltimore Democrat, speculated there could be 110 new members and agreed there will likely be a more conservative cast. But he said there will be a "learning process" for most new members that could add to the frustrating climate of stalemate.

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