Life Goes On For The Once-powerful

February 07, 1993|By Robert Ruby | Robert Ruby,Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — An article in The Sunday Sun of Feb. 7 about former members of Congress incorrectly described First American Bankshares Inc. of Washington, D.C., as bankrupt. In fact, First American is not bankrupt. The capital ratios at First American and its three banks in the Washington area are well in excess of regulatory requirements, according to Paul G. Adams 3rd, president and chief executive.

The Sun regrets the error.

WASHINGTON -- Beverly Byron need only turn on her answering machine to hear reminders of the career she has unwillingly left. One caller wants help in getting information from the Agriculture Department. Another failed to receive a 1993 calendar from her office and wants to know why.

"Well, it's no longer my responsibility," Mrs. Byron says with a wave of her hands, as if to brush away the past.


No more weekend speeches in Cumberland. After 14 years, no more need to track a constituent's missing Social Security check, or to read all the newspapers from Western Maryland.

But also no more trips on a government jet to see the troops in far-away places, or touring an aircraft carrier at sea and being welcomed like royalty. No more guarantees that her telephone calls will snap people to attention.

To get prompt service an aide only had to place a call on behalf of Beverly B. Byron, Democratic member of the House of Representatives from the 6th District of Maryland.

"It was amazing what people would do for you," says one of Mrs. Byron's former aides.

Whatever the question, responses arrived in a hurry. The grace of power extended to her staff.

As a member of Congress, Mrs. Byron automatically received deference and access.

Now, it's different. The aide, for example, is still looking for a job. Mrs. Byron, defeated for re-election, is seeking a vocation.

There are how-to guides for coping with a divorce or the death of a loved one or the loss of one's job. None is particularly helpful for recovering from leaving Congress. Regardless of the circumstances that end it, membership is seen by the rest of the world as a person's high-water mark.

Call one of the several Washington offices of Charles McC. Mathias, and the receptionist identifies her boss as "Senator Mathias," though he retired as one of Maryland's senators in 1986.

'The congressman'

Tom McMillen, professional basketball player for 11 years, member of the House of Representatives for six, was defeated for re-election in November. But the people he has hired for a new business venture refer callers to "the congressman."

A former member of Congress has no guarantee that anyone will ever again demand his opinion on the issues of the day or plead for his support.

"We have no institutional way to honor whatever wisdom a retiring generation has to pass on," says Stephen Hess, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. "There are only so many spots on TV for commentators."

For Mr. McMillen, life as a basketball player was more nearly "normal" than work as a U.S. representative.

In basketball, daily practice lasted two hours, a maximum of three; summers were time off. Congress was a nonstop full-court press.

"A tough business," he says. "It was 60, 70 hours every week."

Mrs. Byron liked the business and had 14 years' experience with it but lost her party primary in March. She was not happy in defeat.

"We were a little stunned," says another of her former aides. "After you're stunned, you get angry."

Mrs. Byron, 60, faced another nine months in office and worried that staff members would abandon her to search for jobs.

Only one person left during the first month. A computer operator left in September. Another aide resigned in November but only because she gave birth to a child, and everyone else stayed until the end.

In any case, there was less work. In the year before the primary, Mrs. Byron attended 360 meetings of one sort or another in her district; come August, after her defeat, things were "pretty deadly dull," says Sara Morningstar, a former legislative aide. "To prepare for the new Congress -- we just didn't have to do it."

"By the end," Ms. Morningstar says of her boss, "she was ready to go on to something else."

Ike on the wall

Mrs. Byron now works sorting a last few papers at a desk in the Washington office of her husband, Kirk Walsh, a mortgage broker.

Nothing in the office suggests a career in politics except a black-and-white photo of President Eisenhower. It is more about family than politics since Mrs. Byron's father was General Eisenhower's aide-de-camp during World War II.

Headlines about gays in the military fascinate her. And frustrate her. If Mrs. Byron were still in Congress, if she were still chairwoman of the subcommittee on military personnel, the subject would properly be hers.

So she quotes the Sunday talk shows. She reminds a visitor that she and Les Aspin -- the new defense secretary -- worked well together in the House. "It's a little frustrating," she says, "to be out of the loop."

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