Forty-nine members of the House of Representatives are quitting this year, a record number. If you look over the list of those retiring, you'll find you are studying neither geriatrics nor the politics of defeat. A lot of the people who are leaving are no more than middle-aged. Most of them would have good to excellent chances of winning if they wanted to try again.
Most give reasons for retiring that are polite echoes of the reasons given by Rep. Otis Pike (D-N.Y.). Pike pointed out to his constituents in a farewell radio broadcast that year he had, for the first time, a less than perfect voting record, and that fact bothered him: "I find my motivation slipping and I don't want to give the people anything less than my best. So I want to get out before I am giving them less than my best."
Concerned but tired. That seems to be the general situation. Pike, for example, pointed out that his fellow congressmen seemed indifferent to the national debt and the national deficit. If he had suggested in more general terms that the problems of the country don't seem to yield to effort any more, he'd have about 100 percent support from his fellow retirees.
In short, it isn't as much fun as it once was to be a congressman. We voters and taxpayers and, particularly, we newspapermen have done our best to ensure that that is so.
Since Watergate, we have srutinized them so carefully that it is really almost dangerous for a man who holds a seat in Congress to get drunk on a Saturday night. Since Wayne Hays, we have looked at the faces and figures of the stenographers in the office. We have forced congressmen to cut their outside income to $8,000 annually, demanded accountings of the office petty cash, followed them more carefully than before on their trips abroad, counted their days out of town.
We have insisted on discovering which of them took cash from Tongsun Park and forced even the chiefest amongst them, the speaker of the House himself, to accept a verdict of "questionable propriety" for the golf bags and parties he accepted in his honor.
Over and over we have informed congressmen through our public-opinion polls that we hold them in very low regard. For a man to say, "I am a congressmen" is not yet the equivalent of saying, "I am a teacher" or doctor or lawyer or businessman.
Time was when a congressman was a well-known figure in his own state. With the urbanization of America, this is now true only in certain of the least populated Plains states and inNew Hampshire, Maine and Vermont.
True, a congressman makes $57,500 a year. But that is not as much in real dollars as a congressman made 10 years ago. So the House is not road to popularity, fame or fortune. In addition, there does seem to be an unbending quality to the nation's problems and a popular conception that legislation only creates more problems.
Even plain pork barrel is now suspect. Time was when bringing home a new post office was bringing home bacon. Today, it may be labeled as inflationary and another example of unnecessary government spending.
Being a congressmen is not what it used to be. Forty-nine retirees is the new record that I do not believe will hold up for very long.