'Promote' a Congressman: Send Him Home

ELLEN GOODMAN

April 14, 1992|By ELLEN GOODMAN

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- These are days when even the most soured citizen of the republic would find the capital hard to resist.

The city is warm around the edges, softened by the spring air that will soon melt down into summer. For a few brief weeks, natives and tourists and even the regulars who set up pickets across from the White House fade into a landscape of cherry blossoms and magnolias. When the wind blows, petals cover sidewalks like confetti from some recent parade.

It is possible to understand, at least for a moment, why people here are so stunned to hear that some of Washington's favored citizens are leaving. It's as if the retiring class of 1992, senators and congressmen, were choosing exile from Paris to Elba, an arid place somewhere beyond the Beltway.

Every few days now, another such departure is announced. Sen. Warren Rudman is going back to New Hampshire. Sen. Kent Conrad is heading home to North Dakota. Now Sen. Timothy Wirth has said he will leave for Colorado.

The Permanent Congress looks a lot more temporary. At least seven members of the Senate won't be back. Some 45 members the House will not stand for re-election. Five more already have been defeated. Their exit lines are full of frustration. Rep. Brian Donnelly of Massachusetts may have said it best: ''I just said to heck with it.''

But each time a name is dropped from the lists, residents of the truly permanent Washington establishment -- bureaucrats and experts and media -- shake their heads. The conversation turns on the trials of Congress, the burdens of office, the trauma of redistricting.

There is much sorrowful agreement about Congress-bashing and angry voters. Indeed people here will tell you in minute insider detail why the House banking scandal is really trivial. The Conventional Wisdom clucks its sage head in understanding and sympathy.

As a visitor, I am not quite that seduced by the April scents of this city. Nor by the allure of a professional ruling class with lifetime tenure. In the past two decades, more legislators left Congress through death than through disillusionment -- theirs and ours. If dozens of members of Congress are choosing to go home this year, if dozens more are sent home by the voters, it is hardly the premature departure of a dearly beloved.

In the 19th century, nearly half the members of each Congress were new. It was rare to serve more than two terms. Men came, did a thankless job, and went home as a matter of course. There was no bereavement and certainly no loss of prestige in that rotation.

As Benjamin Franklin wrote, without too much tongue-in-cheek: ''In free Governments, the rulers are the servants and the people their superiors and sovereigns. For the former therefore to return among the latter was not to degrade but to promote them.''

Such ''promotions'' are long overdue by now. It is no longer just the accomplished basher or the cranky constituent who has grown impatient with Congress' failure to deal with problems.

Blame the gridlock on the clogged route between the Democratic Capitol Hill and the Republican White House. Blame it on campaign financing and financiers. Blame it on the desire to please a fractured electorate. Blame it on the Capitol cocoon that isolates members from their hometowns, from the vagaries of normal banking, and even from some of the laws they pass.

Any way you cut it, the frustrations of the retiring class of '92 are shared, indeed topped, by those of the public. The irony is that for the most part, we have not been angry voters but permissive ones. Even the movement to limit terms has come with a tacit admission of our passivity: Stop us before we vote for them again.

Now it seems that the ability to lead may depend on the willingness to leave. It may depend on the desire to be a problem solver, not just a survivalist.

So this retirement party is not an occasion for mourning. As many as a hundred new legislators may move here next year and if so, let them arrive with a new message. Go, hang around awhile, avoid the seductive charm of the cherry blossoms, do something.

You can go always home again. You should go home again.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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