Between losing and going home: The House basement

By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 9, 2010; A01

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."

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.

"That's the job of Congress," said Hall, a singer-songwriter whose band Orleans recorded the 1970s hit "Still the One." Now, he's sitting unshaven in a basement cafeteria because there's no room to talk in his new office, Cubicle 44. "I did my job," he said.

The departing members also remembered, fondly, their power to intercede for constituents. As lowly as a freshman is on Capitol Hill, he is a giant to a bureaucrat.

"I was surprised by the extent of power that I had," said Rep. Anh "Joseph" Cao (R-La.). Cao recalled his ability to make Federal Emergency Management Agency officials help his constituents still recovering from Hurricane Katrina. "I can go into a federal agency, and people would jump."

But that wasn't enough: Democrats took back Cao's seat this fall, making him one of the three Republican freshmen to lose. One day before Thanksgiving, his aides were already beginning to pack up the photos that decorated his office. "Do we have bubble wrap?" one called to the other.

Yes, the staffer said. "Lots of it?" came the reply. Cao is now in Cubicle 89.

By Dec. 1, those who weren't returning had all moved out of their offices, and workers had removed the metal nameplates by the doors. (The plates are screwed on, not glued, for easy changing.) Some of those nameplates now sit, grandly, in the spare chairs in lawmakers' cubicles.

In the process of moving, some of the lawmakers ran into the next class of freshmen, scoping out the offices for themselves. These encounters sometimes evoked a rare and mysterious emotion on Capitol Hill: empathy.

"We're excited, and then they're kind of down," said Rep.-elect Bobby Schilling (R-Ill.), who beat Hare in November. "You feel kind of bad for them, the ones that are leaving."

Sometime in the next week or two, when Congress finishes its lame-duck session, the outgoing members of Congress will have to surrender their laptops and BlackBerrys, though they get to keep the lapel pins that mark them as a member of Congress.

For now, they work in Rayburn B339, the waiting room to the real world.

"The dominant emotion is pride," said Chris Carney (D-Pa.). He is one of the happier ones. He said he'll miss friends and the chance to tinker with the health-care law. But it was a good run: "Being the lowest life-form in Congress is still not a bad thing."

In Cubicle 48, Rep. Steve Driehaus (D-Ohio) is not as cheerful. Asked if there was anything he'd miss about Capitol Hill, Driehaus acted as if he'd been asked if he'd miss a toothache. He laughed a short, derisive laugh.

"No," said Driehaus, who was defeated after one term. "It's a job. I mean, I lost an election. I move on. You know, that's the way I view it. I'm not real stuck on being a member of Congress."

Not exactly a ringing endorsement for the place. So, would he ever run again?

"I might," he said.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company