The Departed

Three soon-to-be-former congressmen talk about how bad things have gotten.

The Departed

Rep. Steven C. LaTourette (R-Ohio), Rep. Brad Miller (D-N.C.), and Rep. Hansen Clarke (D-Mich.)

Photo by Paul Morigi/Getty Images for Ovation; Photo by Andy Kropa/Getty Images; MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

Read more of Slate’s coverage on Congress and the fiscal cliff.

The next House of Representatives will contain 233 Republicans, 200 Democrats, and 80 freshmen. Redistricting, primaries, and retirements have culled a few centuries’ worth of political experience. So in November and December, I talked to a few representative soon-to-be-former congressmen about what it’s been like to serve in an institution 85 percent of Americans can’t stand. Excerpts of their thoughts follow.

Rep. Steven LaTourette was elected in the 1994 Republican wave, taking over a seat in the eastern suburbs of Cleveland. On paper, Democrats occasionally sketched theories of how he could be beat. But they never got close. LaTourette established himself as a pragmatic conservative and ally of John Boehner, there when the party needed him, and there to shame extremists when they blew up a compromise. Last week, after Boehner’s conference refused to pass a fiscal cliff “Plan B,” LaTourette told reporters that the “continued dumbing-down of the Republican Party” had done them in. He’d decided to retire months ago.

  • The campaign against earmarks really started with Jeff Flake. He’d pick out the ones that had the funniest names, and force votes on them, before we could vote on spending bills. At the outset, he’d lose 300 or more votes, and the exercise seemed pretty much impotent. It never really got legs until the “Bridge to Nowhere,” probably, in 2005. That became the symbol for earmarks. It became a symbol beyond a big amount of money going to a home state. It was something going to for-profit entities.
  • Anytime you’re explaining, you’re losing. You can explain Article 1 Section 7 of the Constitution. You can explain that this money will be appropriated whether or not members of Congress earmark it. But this new class that came in, in the last Congress, they’re looking around, they see the stimulus package, they see the administration handing out tiger grants or whatever it may be, 70 percent of them go into districts controlled by Democrats, and [these freshmen Republicans] stop earmarks. Eventually they want to rescue some scenic area in the district, and they’re told that earmarks were the way to do that. They say: Oh, I didn’t realize that.
  • We have too many “message” votes. I don’t need to have a vote on abortion every month, a vote on guns every month. I have a good relationship with labor. Labor wants one thing: Davis-Bacon. And these new guys, no matter what the bill was, wanted to put repeal of Davis-Bacon in it. It didn’t bother me, but it might have bothered some of the freshmen. Is anybody confused that someone from North Carolina or Georgia is right-to-work? No. Then why have the vote?
  • You’ve had people for a generation running against the Congress. It’s not just enough that you have an honest disagreement with the Democrats. You have these groups—Heritage Action, Club for Growth—shooting at Republicans. It’s a constant pounding, people saying, “You’re a RINO, you sold us out.” The Red State blog guys, I know that after I announced, they wrote: “Best news of the century, LaTourette to retire.” How could that be the best news of the century?
  • The best day I can remember here was when we passed the Balanced Budget Amendment in the House. I recall getting somewhat emotional over that. Between 1996 and 1998 you get welfare reform, you kick out a major highway bill. You get a lot of good work done, and it was because Bill Clinton was willing to triangulate the Democrats. He’d actually reach out and talk to us. This president doesn’t work with us at all.
  • The Clinton impeachment was one of those things—and both parties do this—where we overplayed our hand. Public opinion was not treating President Clinton well, but it seemed like we had to go and make sure that people knew what he did. That’s always our tendency on these things—you want to jump in. But the American people love an underdog. It turns when they think you’re turning on President Clinton, they turn to him. It just had to go the way it went. People were too invested. When it left here, and it went to the Senate, there was no way the United States Senate would remove the president from office. So America got treated to this horrible display, and it wasn’t one of our better moments. President Clinton would have suffered, I think, in terms of popularity and his agenda, if we’d just left him alone.
  • This fiscal cliff thing is the most foreseeable crisis in American history. People had time to put together solutions. There just wasn’t a lot of good work done. I don’t care how good the deal is, if Grover Norquist says it’s a tax increase, you’re going to have 40 to 120 Republicans voting against it. If it touches Medicare and Social Security, you’re going to have Democrats running against it. I think this was why, when I said I was going to retire, people were coming up to me and saying: ‘I wish I would have done that.’ Or, ‘This is my last term.’ There’s a high build-up of frustration in the way things are going.

Rep. Brad Miller got to Congress when the North Carolina Democratic party was still dominant. In 2001, as a state senator, Miller got a say in congressional redistricting. In 2002, he got to play for a seat that was ideal for him, capturing slices of the booming “research triangle.” After the 2008 crash, Miller spent the bulk of his time on financial reform and “cram-down” legislation that would have limited the costs for people stuck with bad mortgages. But in 2010, Republicans took over the legislature and drew a new map designed to squeeze out Miller and three other white Democrats. He announced his retirement this year.

  • When did I know that this current Congress would be rough? Election Night 2010. I thought in late November and December, in the lame duck after the 2010 election, I thought the Obama administration was wildly unrealistic about how it could get along with the new Congress. They’d been inside the Beltway bubble and had no idea how extreme the Tea Party folks were, and that part of the Tea Party ethic was: Never compromise. They felt betrayed by people like Bob Bennett, Dick Lugar, Lisa Murkowski, and even Orrin Hatch—though he’s changed that tendency—who compromise.
  • After the election, House Democrats had a conference meeting, Biden was there and so was Jack Lew. Their argument was: If we don’t extend all the Bush tax cuts, we’ll stall the economy, which is standard Keynesian economics. I thought they were realistic about that. But Republicans were willing to cut spending and hurt the economy even more. I voted against the extension because Republicans were going to come and begin making cuts through continuing resolutions that would do more to contract the economy than extending the tax cuts would expand it. And then I remember asking Biden: We also know we’re going to bump up against the debt ceiling. The usual pattern is that the majority grind their teeth, posture, and pass it. I said, what are we gonna do? The world as we know it will end if the debt ceiling is not extended. We don’t have an agreement. Biden’s response was: ‘Oh, they won’t be that irresponsible. They’ll know they can’t do that. They won’t use the extension to make cuts to programs that we favor.’ I thought: I’m not sure of that. I don’t think you’ve been with these people.
  • I was disappointed the Obama administration didn’t come out and say, in good times we should cut spending, but not now. Instead, the Obama administration picked up the argument: Yes, we need to reduce the deficit, and the question is how. The argument that might have come in handy was that one reason the economy isn’t doing better is because of the cuts Republicans made. But that economic argument is hard to make in the context of politics. Most people instinctively think that the federal government should be run like a household.
  • Demographically, if not philosophically, I’m a Blue Dog. I know a lot of the conservative Democrats because I’m like them. I’ve had more beers and watched more ball games with them than with the progressive crowd. When the Blue Dogs voted against Democratic bills, a lot of it was political calculation. They had tougher districts and were trying to figure out how votes would be used against them. On meaningless procedural votes, Blue Dogs would think about those stats and ratings that show how often you broke with the party. They’d try to drive those numbers down so it would be harder to tie them to Pelosi, to Obama. When health care passed, the Democrats who voted against it did not base it on a real detailed policy argument—tweak this, tweak that. It was to stave off the people demanding they vote against “socialized health care.” They frequently adopted Republican rhetoric to explain their votes.
  • FDR didn’t address Social Security in the first 100 days. He focused on the Great Depression, and Democrats actually expanded their majorities in the 1934 election. A realignment isn’t one election, it’s three elections. After the third election, people can look and say: Yes, that’s what we want. I thought that was a good model for us. If we had worked on the housing crisis first and the fiscal crisis first, then we would have been in a strong position, the midterms would have gone differently, and we could have passed health care reform in 2011. I’ve said this before and gotten some crap from progressives.
  • A big driver of recovery, in the past, has been the housing market. The number of jobs lost in the housing industry was something like 1 million. Now, think about how angry people were when AIG gave out those bonuses. It looked like that spooked the White House. But if we’d taken that anger and directed it, which is a fair thing to do in politics, it would have been hard to resist it. Think if we’d directed that to housing. The economy would have done better. The American people would have thought: They’re standing up to powerful people, for us.

Rep. Hansen Clarke arrived in D.C. on a wave of optimism, an unfamiliar thing in recent Detroit-area elections. He was the guy who beat Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, a singularly ineffective Democrat whose son became a singularly crooked Detroit mayor. Clarke, the son of a Pakistani father and African-American mother who’d died when he was young, had state legislative experience, a degree in fine arts, and a sepia-toned biography. He primaried Kilpatrick in 2010, got to D.C.—and was promptly edged out of office by a Republican-led gerrymander of the city and suburbs.

  • If you’re here to get political power and clout, there’s more of a premium on really bashing people, because that’s how you get attention. But if I went and bashed these people they’d say: The hell with you, man! You’re a freshman! You’re a Democrat! I’m not going to deal with you. I was through with politics before I ran for this job.
  • The most success I had here was on the issue of relieving the debt of student-loan borrowers and their parents. I introduced a resolution that said while Congress is addressing the federal debt, it should address personal debt. Where we got the most feedback was on student loan debt, because no one else had talked about it. We put up a petition. We got 700,000 signatures. I took it to Valerie Jarrett. She took it to the president. He took executive action and reduced the amount of time borrowers have to pay their loans before they’re forgiven, reduced it from 25 years to 20 years. He also lowered the amount of payments a borrower would need to pay according to the income-based repayment program. Man, that was a great day. See, I was trained as an artist. You’re a journalist. Both professions that are essential to civilization, but we don’t get paid like investment bankers. We want people to enter these professions without worrying that they’ll never dig out of debt.
  • The day I was sworn in I sat next to Gabrielle Giffords. When she was shot, I flew down to Tucson and—I’ll never forget this—I was told that her district director, Ron Barber, was with her in the hospital. I assumed he was there visiting the congresswoman. He was shot in the face, man! He was in intensive care! And now he has her seat, which is incredible. For me, gun violence, because I observed that as a child, it was an issue I wouldn’t deal with directly. I saw a man shot and killed when I was 9 years old. I realize still, after all these decades, I’m not freed from that incident. And I want to be freed from it. There is something there, with me. After I saw the man murdered, I forgot about it for 26 years. I’d have a dream, the only dream I’d ever have in color, where I’d see intestines on people’s lawns. But I’d never really deal with it.
  • What got me to deal with that experience was, 10 years ago, I saw a young kid playing a video game, where he was shooting the heads off of people. I was so appalled. I thought: This is screwed up. So I introduced a bill in the state legislature to ban the sale of violent video games to minors. Even after the shootings in Connecticut, yes, we have to restore that assault weapons ban, we also [need to] restrict those magazines with up to 100 bullets. But we need to look at the media. We need to remove the stigma around mental health. My closest relative, my first cousin, died because she lost her job and turned to drinking and prescription drugs. She could have been helped.
  • Everybody in this building knows that the housing market was the root of the financial crisis. Here’s the problem: They’re scared of crossing the financial industry and being defeated with the industry’s money. So they’re silent. Silent. Silent. Silent. Their rationale is: If I get defeated, I’m not going to be able to do anything. That’s what the problem is. I want to start a $20 million PAC for the people on the street. Then I’d get something done.

Read more of Slate’s coverage on Congress and the fiscal cliff.