Many lawmakers choosing to depart

January 04, 1994|By Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON -- Applying do-it-yourself term limits, many members of Congress are departing voluntarily at a rapid rate well in advance of the 1994 elections. Whether or not the current pace continues, it appears there will be a larger than usual turnover among both parties in the House and Senate.

The 110 members of the freshman class in the House, for example, will be more vulnerable to challengers next fall after serving only a single term. While scattered results from 1993 may not indicate a trend, a lingering anti-incumbent sentiment could produce another major shake-up in congressional ranks.

At least 27 members of the House already have decided not to seek re-election this year, opting either to retire or to seek a statewide office, such as governor or senator. In the Senate, a minimum of seven new faces will answer roll calls next year, while upsets in primary and general elections could double that number.

The reasons for departure vary, but several lawmakers said they were burned out by the hectic pace on Capitol Hill and the low public approval ratings for Congress -- despite considerable legislative accomplishments in 1993.

Some of those leaving -- like 42-year-old Rep. Tim Penny, D-Minn. -- expressed frustration at their inability to achieve the level of budget reduction they believe is essential if the deficit is to be controlled.

Others -- such as 70-year-old House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel, R-Ill., and 80-year-old Rep. Jake J. Pickle, D-Texas -- simply decided the time to leave had come, after serving 19 terms and 16 terms, respectively.

Even before this year's exodus, the average length of congressional service has dropped significantly, now averaging from eight to 10 years, or below the 12-year limit usually suggested by advocates of term limits.

A review of seniority lists indicated that only 131 lawmakers in the 435-member House have served more than 10 years at the start of this session of Congress and only 33 had served more than 20 years.

In 1992, for example, 65 members of the House left voluntarily and 45 others were defeated in primary or general elections, accounting for one of the largest turnovers in the past 50 years. The House bank scandal affected many races where an incumbent had to defend a substantial number of overdrafts.

This year, however, the prospect of another large number of open seats means that both political parties will be tested. If historical trends hold, Democrats would be expected to lose about 25 House seats in the first off-year election after a member of their party won the White House. But a number of seats held by retiring Republicans may be vulnerable to a Democratic challenge in 1994.

"Few districts are safe anymore for anyone," said Rep. Vic Fazio, D-Calif., chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

The Democrats in the House now hold a 258-176 edge over Republicans, with one independent. While they are extremely unlikely to lose a majority, their effective control of the House could be jeopardized by a strong GOP orchestrated by Rep. Bill Paxon, R-N.Y., who heads the National Republican Congressional Committee.

The Senate, where Democrats now have a 56-44 advantage, appears unlikely to change significantly as a result of the November balloting. Six senators -- three Democrats and three Republicans -- have announced they will not seek re-election. Another Democrat, appointed Sen. Harlan Mathews of Tennessee, is not considered likely to run for election in his own right.

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