Three soon-to-be-former congressmen talk about how bad things have gotten.
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
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.
David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or tweet at him @daveweigel.