Retiring lawmakers offer glimpse into hidden and more hopeful Congress

Amid a Congress rife with gridlock and partisanship, senior lawmakers have learned some important lessons about how Congress can work. Here, they share their thoughts with the Monitor.

Carolyn Kaster/AP/File
The sun rises behind the US Capitol Building grounds in Washington, Oct. 20, 2014.

As the doors closed on the 113th Congress on Tuesday, a weighty group of senior lawmakers ended their distinguished careers. From the longest-serving member in congressional history to the “Watergate babies” of 1974, they take with them a vast trove of knowledge – not only about how to work the legislative machinery, but also how to work with one another.

That knowledge could well benefit the incoming class. When the freshmen take their seats on Jan. 6, they will belong to a new Congress – a really, really new one. Nearly half of the members of the 114th Congress will have served for four years or less: 49.7 percent in the House and 45 percent in the Senate. That means they were elected in 2010 – the tea party wave – or later.

“Institutional memory is in short supply,” says John Pitney, a congressional expert at Claremont McKenna College in California. Many members have no direct recollection of the clashes between Capitol Hill and the White House during the 1970s – clashes that produced the budget process, the War Powers Act, and many other laws, Mr. Pitney comments in an e-mail.

And many Republicans of the outgoing Congress did not experience the political fallout of the 1995-96 government shutdowns, he adds, “which is one big reason why so many were gung-ho for a shutdown last fall.” 

Further, he says, very few members on either side have any experience with how difficult it is to enact comprehensive tax reform. While comprehensive reform is probably too much to hope for next year, both parties hope to get a piece of it done in the next Congress.

As the 113th Congress headed for the finish line in recent weeks, the Monitor asked several of the retiring senior lawmakers this question: If you were to speak at the orientation for the incoming class, what would you tell them? Interestingly, whether they were Democrats or Republicans, they emphasized the need for expertise, patience, and respect – respect for the institution, for the Constitution, for one another.

Here are five suggestions for the incoming class from some of America’s most experienced lawmakers:

Be patient. Laws can be years in the making. This is the advice of Rep. Henry Waxman (D) of California, one of the last Democratic Watergate babies who rode to Washington on a wave of repulsion with the scandal-plagued Nixon administration.

After 40 years in the House, this liberal legislator – once described by a GOP senator as “tougher than a boiled owl” – urges newcomers to be persistent.

“Keep working. Don’t get discouraged. So much of what I’ve been involved in is taken for granted now that it’s law. But it took many years to pass the restrictions on tobacco, the Ryan White Act to deal with AIDS, the Clean Air Act – it took eight years to pass the amendments,” says Representative Waxman, standing in the House’s chandeliered speaker’s lobby, a comforting fire burning on a nearby hearth.

It's a poignant reminder for those eager to work on immigration, tax reform, and entitlement reform.

Dig in. Develop expertise. From terrorism to climate change, it takes time to master subjects, and issues that come to the Hill can be highly complex. That’s why staffers and aides play such a crucial role. When exiting lawmakers give their farewell speeches, they always laud their staffs – and sometimes choke up delivering their thanks.

But elected officials, too, must develop expertise.

“Do your homework, do your homework, do your homework – which means going beyond 140 characters in your social media efforts,” says the retiring chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Mike Rogers (R) of Michigan, as he rushes to a meeting.

He’s not alone in this view. Over in the Senate, Jay Rockefeller (D) of West Virginia, leaving after 30 years, urges the freshman class to “dig in.”

Start with “an open mind” toward other people and other ideas, advises the senator, who is perhaps best known for his work on Medicaid for children. “After you’ve been here a couple years, you decide what you really care about. And then you dig in and pick out about 10 or 12 areas, spanning several committees, and then you really go after them.”

That look-around-time is easier for a senator, who faces election every six years. It’s harder for a House member, who must go before voters every two years.

Remember the Founders – and one another. Sen. Tom Coburn (R) of Oklahoma, who started in the House with the “Gingrich revolution” of 1994, is a fierce fiscal conservative who also famously befriended Barack Obama when he was a senator from Illinois. Senator Coburn prays for the president every night, according to news reports – even if he disagrees with him on many issues.

When asked what he might pass along to the entering class of senators, the Oklahoman urges them to study the Founding Fathers and pay attention to the Constitution.

“The thing that ought to reign is the Constitution. Not what the party wants. Not even what your electorate wants.” Because Congress has “ignored” its role as laid out in the Constitution, it has allowed the government to become “too big to be managed,” Coburn says. As proof, every year he has released a “Wastebook” highlighting questionable examples of government spending.

In his final days in the Senate, Coburn – known as “Dr. No” – put holds on must-pass legislation because of concerns over spending and states’ rights. He managed to kill one of the bills – terrorism risk insurance – through his delaying tactic. And yet, there’s affection for him. “Tom needs to be Tom as long as Tom is here. We love him,” Sen. Bob Corker (R) of Tennessee – a political bridge-builder in the Senate – told the National Journal.

Representative Rogers emphasizes respect for the institution of Congress. “Revere the place,” he advises. “It was designed [for you] to sit across the table from someone you disagree with. It’s OK if you disagree. Don’t make it personal. And understand if you can get an 80 percent deal, you ought to take it and get up tomorrow and fight for the other 20 percent.”

Build visibility for your issue. Rep. George Miller (D) of California – another departing Watergate baby – has made his mark on education, environment, and worker-related bills. He’s best known in the House, though, as the right arm of fellow Californian and House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi.

Representative Miller’s message to newcomers makes him sound a bit like a meteorologist: “I think they’ve got to learn to create their own weather. They’ve got to figure out what they’re interested in, what’s important to them, what’s important to their district, and then create their own weather around those issues. And it doesn’t happen overnight,” he said between votes last week.

What exactly does that weather-making entail? Decades of strategizing experience rolled from his lips: go out and organize, become fluent in the issue, study the opposition, go on the attack to get your position heard and to get visibility and converts. “It’s a lot of work,” he laughs.

He cites an example from the Reagan years that seems just as valid in the age of Twitter-organized protests: “When efforts were made to cut child nutrition, we put rings around the Capitol, children holding hands around the Capitol.... We won those fights. You have to have an inside-outside game all of the time. You’ve got to constantly be in contact with people all over the country. It’s a lot of fun!”

Heed Miss Manners – or at least Rep. John Dingell. Representative Dingell (D) of Michigan was elected to the House in December 1955 – when Dwight Eisenhower was president – and is the longest-serving member of Congress in history, with 59 years under his belt.

The National Journal Almanac calls him “one of the most productive legislators ever to serve, thanks to a forceful personality that enabled him to dominate the Energy and Commerce Committee for years.”

Perhaps the congressman was reflecting on that forcefulness when he answered the question about freshman advice. 

“I’d say, listen before you talk.”

That’s it?

“It’s not bad advice,” he said, adding that he wished he had “paid more heed” to it himself.

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