The jaws of victory A job and a half: Congress is nor glamorous, and Kweisi Mfume warns his would-be successors that they'll have to give up their lives to keep up with the work

February 04, 1996|By C. Fraser Smith

THIRTY-TWO CANDIDATES -- 27 Democrats and five Republicans -- are running to succeed Kweisi Mfume as Maryland's 7th District congressman.

Few, if any, of them understand what they're in for if they win, he says.

"You give up your life. And you have to do it willingly. Your day starts early and you get home around midnight if you're lucky.

"You have to be a high-energy person," Mr. Mfume said.

Others in Congress say the pace and the distractions diminish the value of thoughtful men and women -- those who ran with the hope of participating in high-level, high-caliber policy-making.

Instead, they find themselves consumed by constant demands from the media, by as many as 200 constituent complaints each day, by a range of lobbyists, by the crush of complex legislation, by visitors from the home district and, of course, by voting and debating that keep them in harness from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. day after day. The pace permits little more than lightly touching the legislative bases.

Many are no longer willing to "give up" their lives, as Mr. Mfume puts it, particularly when the process is unfulfilling and when they are the subject of so much criticism.

"It's lost its glamour and that's the understatement of this conversation," said a veteran Democratic member of Maryland's member congressional delegation. Fearing his constituents might see his concerns about the institution as purely personal gripes, he asked that his name be withheld.

"You're finding a lot of people who don't want this sort of life any more. It's not a financial thing. It's a matter of losing control over your life. More and more people are saying no to going on with it," he said.

Some disillusionment emerges even from the hard-charging, Republican-dominated freshman class of 1994. With eight divorces pending within their ranks, they are certain that public service in the House of Representatives is not "family friendly."

Some 36 members are calling it quits in the House -- 24 Democrats and 12 Republicans -- and 13 moderate senators -- eight Democrats and five Republicans -- are throwing in the towel.

"The reality has set in very decidedly," said Mr. Mfume, who is leaving his 7th District office Feb. 18 to become president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. "The class that thought this was a part-time job recognizes now that it's a job and a half," he said.

The job retains its attractions, to be sure: It offers a grand title and work in a historic setting with no heavy lifting. At $135,000 or so per year, the work is well compensated, though less so when calculated on an hourly basis.

Mr. Mfume is not exaggerating, said freshman Republican Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. of Baltimore County's 2nd District.

Mr. Ehrlich loves the work, but speaks longingly of the days when he was a member of the Maryland House of Delegates -- when thoughtful, focused lawmaking was possible.

"In Annapolis, you're really a legislator," he said, contrasting that work with what he does in Washington. "There, we sat in committee and listened to testimony. There was no staff and no spin [usually]. There was no party conference. You were just a legislator. You were not spending a whole lot of time with major constituent concerns.

"Here, I'm the negotiator, the conduit between various parties: If a big employer has a problem, for example, he calls the congressman. The volume of casework is huge: 100 to 200 letters a day. So, you're servicing your constituents rather than being a pure legislator and for me one of the more enjoyable things was debating important issues. Here it's all pre-packaged," he said. The issues are digested and delivered to the members by their staff assistants.

"If staff didn't do it, it wouldn't get done. In Annapolis, the individual legislator had tremendous control over the final committee product, particularly in Judiciary where I served. Here, as compared to state government, you're never actually a legislator.

"For people who like the policy debate and who have strong philosophical orientation, this atmosphere is less fulfilling.

"The hours we work really isn't a big deal to me," he said -- but it might be if he had children or if he represented a district in Utah, requiring him to spend many hours a week commuting. He'd been a young practicing attorney as well as a legislator before winning his 2nd District seat in 1994, so the time demands are relatively unchanged.

Both men said they worked hard to honor the commitment of their predecessors: Democrat Parren J. Mitchell in Mr. Mfume's district; Republican Helen Delich Bentley and Democrat Clarence D. Long in Mr. Ehrlich's.

"Parren, to his credit, cultivated a belief that although your congressman was in Washington, he was not of Washington," Mr. Mfume said. He tried to adopt the same identity.

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