House members choosing to vote with their feet

January 29, 1994|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,Staff Writer

PINEY POINT, Maryland -- They work days so packed with appointments, their time is doled out in tiny dollops. They stand for re-election so often the campaign fund raising and stumping back home never seems to end.

Instead of thanks from a grateful electorate, they are widely scorned by the press and the public as a collection of crooks, philanderers and overpaid dolts.

Even here, at a private retreat in St. Mary's County for Democratic House members, one of President Clinton's top advisers felt free to poke fun at them.

"I believe strongly in both sides of that argument," Clinton economic aide Robert Rubin said in response to a question during a panel discussion, "which is why I might run for Congress sometime."

So, how many lawmakers would volunteer to leave all this glamour and power for private life? Plenty. They are breaking land speed records with the pace at which they are rushing out the door.

By the end of this week, 33 House members had announced their intention not to seek re-election -- the largest number at this point in the election cycle in more than a decade, according to a study by the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call.

It's not yet clear whether the tally will ultimately reach the record total of 65 House members who chose to bow out in 1992. But the departures are already ahead of the pace set then, when 26 lawmakers had announced by Jan. 23 their intentions to leave.

Given the influx of 110 new members last year and a smaller but still sizable turnover in 1990, the loss of only 30 more incumbents -- through resignation or defeat at the polls -- would mean that more than half the representatives who take office next year will have served in the 435-member body no longer than four years.

They seem to be practicing voluntary term limits.

"It's amazing," said Stuart Rothenberg, a political analyst. "The big turnover was no surprise in 1992 with reapportionment, the bank scandal and the anti-incumbent mood. I'm not really sure what's driving it this year."

House Speaker Thomas S. Foley, a Democrat from Washington state, sees it in philosophical terms. "The Congress mirrors the country. We're in a state of transition: Economically, politically, all the various movements under way in the country affect us."

But the answer seems to rest at least in part with the changing nature of the job, which many lawmakers report is increasingly tiring, frustrating and thankless.

"It's a different job than it used to be," said first-term Rep. Eric Fingerhut, an Ohio Democrat who seemed to be floating through the strategy sessions here in a kind of befuddled daze. "I can't understand why some people want to stay so long."

So far, only a few legislators have quit in a huff, the most notable being Rep. Timothy J. Penney, a 42-year-old Minnesota Democrat who pulled the plug in August on a five-term career that was just beginning to blossom.

A deficit hawk who had just won a big victory in budget negotiations with President Clinton, Mr. Penney said he was worn out from having to fight the Democratic leadership at every turn and was generally sick of the whole place. In what seemed like heresy, Mr. Penney announced he wanted to go home to Minnesota to have a regular life.

Another relatively young Democrat, 44-year-old Rep. Mike Kopetski of Oregon, bowed out in October with the explanation that his two terms in Washington had taken too high a personal toll. His marriage ended, he got arrested for drunken driving and he felt under siege by all of Washington's competing pressure groups.

Others are tired of the partisan atmosphere on the Hill.

"Congress has become so excessively partisan that the good ideas from members of both sides are routinely crushed by political posturing: the Democratic majority operates chiefly to perpetuate its domination and, in defensive response, the Republican minority retreats into a bunker mentality," complained five-term North Carolina Republican Rep. Alex J. McMillan, 61, in a retirement letter sent to his constituents in November. "Most new ideas -- especially substantive ones -- never get reported by the media unless, of course, they are radical or outrageous."

At least 13 of the departing House members are seeking higher office, most for the Senate, but a few such as Republican Helen Delich Bentley of Maryland are running for governor. A handful of others, facing potentially tough re-election races, just decided it wasn't worth the effort.

Among this year's retirees are also some very senior members who might be expected to leave at this point, such as Democrats J. J. "Jake" Pickle of Texas, 80, who has served 16 terms; Don Edwards of California, 79, also a 16-term veteran; and William D. Ford, 66, of Michigan, who is now in his 15th term.

But in the past, old-timers usually died in office or lost at the polls.

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