Why I quit Congress

May 16, 1994|By David L. Boren

THERE was no one moment when I decided to leave the Senate.

As I worked through my decision I remembered 14-hour days: running from one room to another and one office building to zTC another because four of my committees were meeting at the same time; lunching just off the Senate floor while waiting for my amendment to come up; --ing to the Capitol steps for photos with three groups from home and back to my office for five appointments on pending legislation or projects -- all followed by three or four hours of returning new phone calls, answering dozens of new letters and reading a pile of urgent action memos from staff members asking directions on issues or constituent problems.

Those days usually ended at 10 p.m. with dinner at my desk.

There was no time for reflection, no time to exchange ideas with fellow senators.

Too often, attempts to talk with another senator about teaming up on a bill or amendment were met with "I can't talk now, but have your staff person call my staff to talk about it."

Once, the president and our leaders asked four senators from each party to hammer out a compromise on a civil rights bill. It took two weeks to find an hour when all eight could meet. When the day came, the eight entered and left the meeting at different times. No more than four were ever together for more than 15 minutes.

My family life and personal friendships paid a stiff price. There were only three weekends last year when I was not airborne between Oklahoma and Washington or at meetings elsewhere.

One month it took 27 days before my wife and I could have dinner together and an unscheduled evening at home. At the end of certain days, I sometimes asked myself what I had really done to help solve the major problems facing our country. My honest answer was: not much.

Today's Senate is not the body I joined 16 years ago. Partisanship is much stronger.

Today, senators of different parties go into one another's states and campaign against one another, violating an old tradition and making it almost impossible to put party politics aside to work together in the national interest.

Too much time has to be spent raising money for campaigns instead of working on critical problems. The Senate has become a fragmented set of individual empires and political fiefdoms, with almost 300 committees and subcommittees.

The average senator serves on 12 different panels. No wonder there is so much reliance on a cumbersome bureaucracy.

Public office is an honorable calling. It has moments of great satisfaction when a major bill is finally passed or an injustice to a citizen is remedied.

Over all, though, it is clear that Congress must be changed to enable well-intentioned people to make a real difference -- or the exodus of many sincere members will continue.

There is no doubt that our country, too, badly needs renewal. Surveys of public opinion have reached two interesting conclusions about how it will be accomplished.

First, there is growing disillusionment with traditional political involvement as a way to make a difference. Second, people have real determination to get involved where they think they can have an impact: as community volunteers.

I have come to believe that the revitalization of our nation will not come from Washington but from the grass roots -- from those who become active in their own communities.

If America gets everything else right but fails to provide for the education of the next generation, we will lose our strength as a society.

A reporter asked me, "Why would you give up power and influence to become a university president?"

My answer: At this point, I feel I can do more good at the university.

David L. Boren, a Democrat, is leaving the Senate to become president of the University of Oklahoma.

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