Nostalgic for old times, former members of Congress want to return

03/18/2014 12:11 PM

03/18/2014 12:24 PM

Maybe these 2014 congressional candidates should consider adopting the disco-era classic “Never Can Say Goodbye” as their campaign theme song.

Like golden oldies, nearly a dozen former members of the House of Representatives are looking for another spin on Capitol Hill, running for their old seats or for vacancies created by current House members running for other positions.

But with House and Senate members retiring in droves _ disgusted with Washington’s acrimonious ways _ and with Congress’ approval ratings slinking along at 13 percent, why are these ex-members so eager to get back in when so many are clamoring to get out?

“I do not have any retirement skills,” joked former Rep. Marjorie Margolies, D-Pa., who’s trying to regain the seat she lost in 1994 after casting the deciding vote for then-President Bill Clinton’s economic plan.

Apparently neither do former Reps. Doug Ose, R-Calif., Bob Dold, R-Ill., Frank Guinta, R-N.H., Joe Baca, D-Calif., Bob Barr, R-Ga., and a host of other Washington retreads who are on the comeback trail this election year. Former Massachusetts Republican Sen. Scott Brown is so hungry to return to Capitol Hill that he’s relocated to New Hampshire to gear up to run against incumbent Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen next November.

“I enjoyed the House,” said Barr, a four-term member who lost a Republican primary battle in 2002 in a redrawn suburban Atlanta congressional district. He’ll face five other Republicans in May to fill an open seat created by Republican Rep. Phil Gingrey’s decision to run for the Senate. “To me, that’s where the action is, and that’s what I’ve always enjoyed about it.”

Several departing members of Congress and political analysts say there isn’t much to enjoy in the House and the Senate these days. Acrimony, gridlock, and internal and external party squabbling permeate Capitol Hill to the point that passing bills to fund the government and other measures once considered routine are painful challenges today.

“It may be these people running don’t know how bad it is right now and what an unhappy place it is and have kinder, gentler memories of the place,” said former Rep. Bill Frenzel, R-Minn., a Brookings Institution analyst who served in the House from 1971 to 1990. “Otherwise, I can think of no good reason.”

Even the perks and power of being a senator or House member haven’t been enough to keep lawmakers – from influential longtime Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., to powerful House Armed Service Committee Chair Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif. _ from rushing towards the exits in frustration and disgust.

“I find serving in the House to be obnoxious,” Dingell, Congress’ longest-serving member, told The Detroit News last month. “It’s become very hard because of the acrimony and bitterness, both in Congress and in the streets.”

Twenty-one House members _ 11 Republicans and 10 Democrats _ and six senators _ four Democrats and two Republicans _ are retiring from Congress, according to Roll Call, the Capitol Hill publication.

Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., announced that he’s resigning from the Senate at the end of the year to battle cancer.

While folks such as Frenzel scratch their heads and wonder why any former lawmaker of sound mind would attempt to go back to Washington, former Rep. Connie Morella, R-Md., thinks she knows the reason.

“A number of people want in, even though it’s a polarized Congress,” said Morella, an American University faculty member who heads the U.S. Association of Former Members of Congress. “We find people who still have public service in their blood and look at Congress as an institution they still love. They think they can improve it, make it better. Me? I have no desire to run again.”

Ose never envisioned returning to Washington when he vacated his Sacramento-area House seat in 2004 and fulfilled a campaign promise to serve only three terms. But as the nation’s economy worsened and his frustration with Washington grew, he thought, “Why not?”

“I didn’t have any expectations of going back, but things aren’t where they need to be,” said Ose, who’s trying to win California’s June Republican primary and challenge incumbent Rep. Ami Bera, D-Calif., in November. “When I was there before, I figured out how to get stuff done. When I go there again, I’ll figure out how to get stuff done again.”

Dold, a one-term House member who lost to Democrat Brad Schneider in 2012 by about 3,000 votes, said voters often asked him why he wanted to go back to Congress.

“They even give me, ‘You don’t have the excuse of not knowing what it’s like,’ ” he said. “From my perspective, Washington is broken and they’re (people) are calling on me to run.”

Margolies said she had no illusions about the atmosphere in Washington. She got a taste of the acrimony two decades ago. Then known as Marjorie Margolies Mezvinsky, she cast the decisive vote in 1993 on an economic plan that Clinton hinged his presidency on.

The plan increased taxes by $241 billion, which Republicans knew would outrage voters in Margolies’ suburban Philadelphia district since she’d promised in her 1992 campaign to oppose tax hikes.

“She had to walk down the aisle into the well to cast the vote,” recalled former Rep. Mel Watt, D-N.C., who’s now the head of the Federal Housing Finance Agency. “And the Republicans started chanting, ‘Bye-bye, Marjorie, bye-bye.’ It took a lot of guts, and they were right because she paid the political price.”

Margolies was out of politics after one term but she said politics wasn’t out of her. In 1998, she founded Women’s Campaign International, a nonprofit group that promotes women getting involved in leadership and politics, and she kept in close contact with political and nongovernmental organization leaders.

“I never stopped doing what I had started to do when I was in Congress,” Margolies said.

When Rep. Allyson Schwartz, D-Pa., decided to relinquish Margolies’ old House seat to run for Pennsylvania governor, “I started getting calls from folks saying, ‘Why don’t you look at this?’ ” Margolies said.

“And that’s why I’m doing this,” she said. “That’s how it started.”

Margolies is running against three other Democrats in a Democratic-safe district. It’s a crowded field, but she’s getting help from the man who was partially responsible for her defeat 20 years ago: Clinton will headline a fundraiser for Margolies in Philadelphia next month.

The event is also a family affair: Margolies’ son, Marc Mezvinsky, is married to Chelsea Clinton, Bill and Hillary Clinton’s daughter.

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