The inaugural season focuses on the new president, and rightly so. Flourishes, promises and tidings of better days to come greet the new era. But another class of politician faces a more wrenching time: congressmen who have retired from office by choice or their constituents'. These former legislators need the compassion of all Americans in this, their hour of need. They must become civilians again.
Take it from me, this is no easy task. As a six-term congressmam from Beverly Hills until 1977, I know the symptoms that afflict the newly retired. For example, it takes about six months to break the habit of sprinting out of your office to vote every time a bell rings. And life becomes lonely without invitations to attend the installation of new officers at the Clay Pipe Institute.
On the other hand, as an attorney in private practice, I understand why pundits call every tax reform bill "the lawyers' and accountants' relief act," and I look forward to seeing some of my ex-colleagues litigate under or interpret laws they created. How, I've sometime wondered, would the West have been won if Southern Pacific engineers 135 years ago had had to contend with the Occupational Safety and Health Act and the EPA?
Ever since I decided to retire, other congressmen thinking about quitting have called to ask about life on the outside. It's a consideration that creeps into every member's mind after a miserable series of night floor sessions or a hectic week of campaigning.As a member, I regulary considered the question after flying east on the "red eye" that left Los Angeles at 10 p.m. and landed at 6 a.m. in Washington.
Often I counsel friends with Kristol's Law: "Being frustrated is disagreeable, but the real disasters in life begin when you get what you want." I remind them of their junket last winter to investigate tropical agriculture in the Caribbean. I ask them to think back and savor the feeling they felt when they last received a standing ovation. In tough cases, I ask the older member to consider their retirement benefits; I remind younger politicians they still have the sublime joys of a subcommittee chairmanship to look forward to.
Should a congressman decide to step down, I understand. I retired to spend more time with my family, because I resented the growing intrusion of the public in my private life, and because I didn't feel the same satisfaction I felt when I began my career in politics.
Forget about us voluntary retirees, though. (Everyone else has). It is the defeated pol who deserves the compassion of taxpayers. if the American public were truly generous, it would increase the national debt a modest million or so and fund a program to aid such Capitol Hill refugees. I suggest a kind of Politicians Anonymous be formed to help ex-members from embarrassing themselves in public.
To begin with, you don't have to have your secretary regret (with profuse apologies) invitations from the aforementioned Clay Pipe Institute. This is a good thing, since you no longer have a secretary. But you do have to pay $5 a day to park in downtownWashington. At an airport, you should not hand your luggage to the first man you see in military uniform -- as you did back in the day of junkets. And about your airline ticket -- not only must you make your own plane and hotel reservations, you'll have to pay for them too.
Look in your mirror and say hello to your new staff. Which means you lick the stamps now. (You remember stamps, don't you?) And sure you complained about the volume of mail you received. But no matter how abusive or virtulent those letters were, they were written by real, live people. Savor the memory -- in civilian life, invitations to join fruit-of-the-month clubs or to subscribe to Time rank as hot mail. Some ex-members experience severe withdrawal pains unless they recieve something written by the human hand; I've often thought it a deep personal kindness that some lobbyists on their mailing lists for a few months.
The newly minted civilian will have to be prepared for some unpleasantness at social gatherings. I, for example left Congress as the Watergate scandal came to an end. Although I was a California Democrat with predictable sentiments about Richard Nixon, there were those who connected my exit with Watergate.
"How come you're free and G. Gordon Liddy is in jail?" one person asked me. It was tough to explain.
This year, the nonpartisan nature of the Abscam affair makes retiring members even more susceptible to this kind of harassment. The general public believes politicians leave office only when defeated or indicted.
Once the decision is made to leave office, the kind of support a Politicians Anonymous could provide must begin.
The congressman who decides not to run again will quickly enter what we in the political regression biz call the interregnum. The question of the moment: When do you tell the world? Complete personality changes have been observed in people who have decided to leave Capitol Hill but have not shared their decision with staff or constituents. I've seen hitherto gentle congressman suddenly use excessive force when gleefully throwing single-issue lobbyists out of their offices. Dour members accustomed to smiling only when an enemy losses a vote suddenely become as effervescent as a Lions Club greeter.
A trained observer can spot these mood swings. Congressmen who suddenly take an unusual interest in the bills a fellow member might be guiding through subcommittee are clearly on the make; they are considering what interest groups might make potential clients later.
Which brings up the Wing-Walker's Rule: "Never leave hold of what you've got until you've got hold of something else." Leaving requires planning. Favorite bills should be pushed before others learn of your decision to quit. If a colleague thinks you'll be around next term to exact revenge, he'll be less likely to sandbag your bill.
I learned the hard way. I was trying to convince the House to pass a bill dealing with loan guarantees for synthetic fuels. The vote was expected to be tight. It was the next-to-last bill I was pushing before my retirement, and I was covering a door to the House floor, trying to persuade members entering to see things my way. A prominent subcommittee chairman who opposed the bill was working the other side of the double door. The only thing I had to sell was my nice-guy charm and infinite wisdom. I lost by one vote; my colleague beat me with irrefutable logic.
"Vote 'no'" he said to everyone. "Rees isn't going to be here next year, but I am."
(It's different when a lame duck member's bill is in the Senate for debate, however. There are so many of us on the House Side that senators often can't keep the players straight. My last bill ran into some trouble in the Senate. I worked out its passage in the final hours of the congressional session -- and the senators didn't know I was nearly a political memory who wouldn't be around the next term to bother them.)
The rules change dramatically once the world knows of your departure. You are a loose cannon on the deck, as former Sen. James Abourezk (D-S.D.) once-described himself during that twilight time. You face no reelection problem, no fund-raising affairs; there's no need for smiles and handshakes. You can vote against bills you don't like, regardless of how it'll pay back home. It is the sweetest of times, but the euphoria is short-lived.
Before we consider the trauma that so many ex-members experienced just before Christmas when they saw the last box piled outside their House or Senate office door, let's consider the shortcomings of the congressional life. This always makes the pill easier to swallow. A list such as the following can help a loser rationalize defeat:
Workdays are long and schedules so intense that there is little time for contemplation or family life.
As single-issue lobbyists become more numerous, constitutent demands increase and political party organizations lose their clout. The politician who doesn't kowtow to the single-issue lobby these days can expect to have his head lopped off or a stake driven through his heart. Forgotten is H. L. Mencken's observation: "For every human problem, there is a neat, plain solution -- and it's always wrong."
The extremes of the political spectrum are asserting themselves with such downright meanness that healthy political scrapping has been replaced by trench warfare. Life can get ugly; legislation can get buried.
More and more amendments are added to bills to sandbag members with recorded votes on controversial issues. Abortion amendments are somehow tacked on to foreign aid, housing and environmental bills.
Time-consuming roll call votes on issues as routine as Mother's Day resolutions have become commonplace.
Just reading that list should provide some balm for those souls whose lives were recently shattered by involuntary retirement.
Once there were halfway houses in Washington where an ex-member could adjust to his new position in life surrounded by other survivors. Dr. Duke Zeibert's fine clinic was by far the best, with treatment that included good conversation, liquid nourishment and kosher pickles. The lesser afflicted took the cure at Dr. Paul Young's outpatient ward. Little noticed at the corner of Connecticut and M Street was Freddy's, the classic late '50s emergency room. There, 65-cent martini therapy sometimes took the ex-member back through his congressional days, even to his pre-congressional days when he worked as a student on Harold Stassen's first campaign. Only time will tell if Joe & Mo's or Mel Krupin's will be able to replace them. Ex-members would be advised to stay away from such lethally political Hill places as the Republican Capitol Hill Club, the Democratic Club or the 116 Club.
In the difficult cases of congressmen unable to reconcile themselves with their defeat, I'd suggest some kind of Adopt-A-defeated-buddy Program. Ex-politicians adjusted to the civilian world could take defeated, dazed and perplexed pols under their wings. Should the ex-member awake with a bolt to answer a quorum call, he can phone his buddy for reassurance that the bells are just in his mind. The buddy can offer directions to airports other than Andrews Air Force Base and explain that a civilian traveling abroad will not be handed counterpart funds in local currency by an embassy official at each stop. He can also instruct a newly retired member in the fine art of picking up a luncheon check. i
I've only seen such therapy work on an individual basis, but I see no reason why a well-designed clinic located in, say, the National Visitor Center, couldn't serve great numbers successfully. sConsider Rees' Rule: "The shock of having served in Congress can slowly turn into pride as an ex-member picks up a healthy set of normal human emotions and values." CAPTION:
Picture, no caption, By Bill Snead