Between losing and going home: The House basement

By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 9, 2010

For most of us, the last stage of grief is acceptance.

For members of Congress, it is a cubicle.

With just a few days left in the lame-duck session, defeated and retiring representatives have had to exchange their grand offices for basement nooks and plastic chairs. There, crowded together in warrens of modular furniture in Rayburn B339, are 39 lawmakers who were beaten after just one or two terms.

These members of the we-hardly-knew-ye club face a particularly vexing question: I was in Congress. What do I have to show for it?

"I laughed at my opponent, who says he wants to shut down the IRS," said Rep. Carol Shea-Porter (D-N.H.), who was elected in 2006. No representative, much less a new one, has that kind of power, of course. That point was driven home to Shea-Porter when some of her own, far more modest priorities, such as an act to increase transparency in campaign spending, were shot down or stymied.

Then Republican Frank Guinta beat her by 11 percentage points in November. He's one of more than 90 freshmen coming in January to the House, where they started out last month in the same basement cubicles while they attended orientation.

"They'll be snapped back to reality," Shea-Porter said. By then, she'll be long gone.

According to lists kept by the newspaper Roll Call, these 39 represent the most freshmen and sophomores defeated in one election since at least 1978.

It used to be that members of Congress tended to stay elected. "Wave" elections came infrequently. And when they did, the group of veteran lawmakers who lost would be replaced by a batch who reigned long enough to become veterans themselves.

Little time to leave a mark

But 2010 brought the third wave election in a row, a Republican rout that took back seats Democrats had won in 2006 and 2008. Its casualties were mostly novices: 13 Democrats who had served two terms and 23 who had served one. The three others who aren't returning are Republicans.

Historians say that just isn't enough time to do much on Capitol Hill.

"The unvarnished truth is that most of them made absolutely no impression whatsoever," said Allan Lichtman, a history professor at American University. "Because, in the House, the leadership runs everything. And the Democrats have enough votes that not many [issues] came down to one single vote."

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