Congress could be shaken by a record turnover Resignations, redistricting, voter frustration are cited.

April 13, 1992|By Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON -- For Sen. Warren Rudman, R-N.H., it was the refusal of his colleagues to face up to the biggest overdraft of all: a $400 billion budget deficit. For Sen. Tim Wirth, D-Colo., it was partisan pettiness, legislative gridlock and the "hysterical superficiality" of television. And for Rep. Vin Weber, R-Minn. , it was the prospect of dragging his family through a "vicious, negative and highly personal campaign" in which his opponent would have accused him of writing bad checks.

For a variety of reasons, some philosophic, some pragmatic, members of the House and Senate are announcing their retirements from national politics in unexpectedly large numbers that could contribute to record turnover when the 103rd Congress convenes next year.

"I have observed all kinds of stresses and strains and frustrations in legislative bodies for years now, but I have never seen anything like this," said Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Calif., a seven-term congressman and third-ranking Republican leader in the House. "It's almost a pall hanging over the place. . . . It's a negative mood so thick you could cut it with a knife."

So far this year, 44 House members -- 29 Democrats and 15 Republicans -- have announced they are not running for re-election to their current seats. The number is expected to grow and perhaps exceed the post-war record of 49 voluntary departures in 1978.

At least 11 other House members will be leaving involuntarily -- incumbents who have already lost primary races and those who are certain lose because redistricting has forced them into races against other incumbents. That places the House turnover total at 55 so far.

Some political observers, citing poll findings that suggest widespread public antipathy toward Congress, have predicted that the combination of retirements, redistricting and forcible evictions could bring more than 100 new faces to the 435-member House next year. The record for House turnover was 118 members in 1949.

In the Senate, the seven retirements announced so far are just slightly above the average for an election year. Even so, the list of departing senators is considered remarkable because it includes a number of younger, respected and up-and-coming members, a phenomenon also evident in the House, although to a lesser extent.

Faced with public scorn, media criticism, legislative gridlock and election campaigns that are expensive, difficult and often demeaning, many lawmakers who once thought of making a career in the House or the Senate are deciding that being a public servant is no longer worth the grief.

Political experts and incumbent lawmakers say there is no single, overarching reason for the rash of retirements this year. Instead, they cite a "confluence of factors that in combination are going to produce a major turnover," in the words of Mr. Lewis.

The House banking scandal is clearly a major consideration. The list of retirees includes Rep. Edward Feighan, an Ohio Democrat who was among the top 22 abusers of the House bank, and Mr. Weber, who has admitted overdrawing his checking account 125 times.

For a few veteran members, retirement looks especially attractive because 1992 is the last year in which lawmakers who have been in office for at least 12 years can convert their accumulated campaign funds to personal use if they leave office.

But other, more disturbing reasons are being cited, not only by lawmakers who are leaving but also by many who are staying behind.

The grievances include a growing sense of anger at what many characterize as the media's trivialization of the political process, and the often demeaning demands placed on candidates who must raise enormous sums of money to run for office.

The complaints reflect dissatisfaction with the inability of a bloated congressional bureaucracy to break the gridlock that ties up important legislation in countless subcommittee meetings.

Similarly, lawmakers say they are increasingly frustrated with the end result of a divided government in which important legislation often receives a veto by a Republican president that a Democratic-controlled Congress cannot override.

There also is a growing sense of despair over the low esteem in which Congress is held by many people.

But "worst of all," Mr. Wirth said, are the negative strategies and poisonous partisanship that lead to a "reflexive cynicism in the print press and a hysterical superficiality in the electronic media's focus on sensational themes."

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