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Between losing and going home: The House basement

How did that make them feel? It's hard to know, Lichtman said. These are politicians, after all.

"I wonder how many of them have that much genuine capacity for self-reflection," he said.

Yet, in a series of recent interviews, eight ousted lawmakers reflected on their tenures cut short. Many of them had come to the capital in their own waves, full of ambition. In 2006, new Rep. Phil Hare (D-Ill.) told the Chicago Tribune that his class aimed to make Washington less partisan: "We're tired of the name-calling. We want to get things done."

Now, Hare says he has learned exactly how hard it is to do anything. Once in Congress, he lobbied hard to get a seat on the House transportation committee so he could help pass a huge highway-funding bill that would provide jobs in his district.

But committee members of both parties can't agree on a way to fund the measure. No money, no bill, no jobs.

"You come in wanting to change the world," Hare said. He kept saying he was glad to be there: a guy with two years of community college whose vote counted the same as those of the Ivy Leaguers and lawyers. But, he said, "this is a system that slows you down."

Several outgoing Democrats said they were proud of votes for the health-care overhaul and for financial regulation. But - this is life at the bottom of the majority - the party's leaders got credit for these accomplishments, and key senators won the major concessions for their states.

Low-level House Democrats, whose votes weren't as coveted, got fewer benefits, either material or political.

And they often got the same amount of blame.

"You really think I would vote for a bill that would kill Grandma?" Hare recalled asking a town hall meeting of his constituents during the health-care debate, after somebody suggested that reform would mean "death panels" for the elderly.

"Some hands went up," Hare said.

'I did my job'

So what did the lawmakers do? The answers usually have something to do with earmarks, the targeted funding requests that many new Republican lawmakers are trying to stop. Hare got a Veterans Affairs clinic in his district; Rep. John Hall (D-N.Y.) got $300,000 to replace a water main built with harmful asbestos fibers.

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