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Fleeing the Hill

By Rustin C. Silverstein

Like passengers scrambling for lifeboats on the Titanic, congressional representatives can't seem to get out fast enough these days.

Recently, Cambridge's representative, Joseph P. Kennedy II, announced he will not run for reelection this November. By choosing to vacate a seat once held by political legends like Tip O'Neill and his uncle John, Kennedy's departure seemed to confirm a noticeable trend of congressional evacuation. So far, 32 House members have declared their intention not to run again in '98. This group includes high-profile departures like Vic Fazio (the third-ranking Democrat in the House), and the power couple of New York Republicans Bill Paxon and Susan Molinari.

On the other side of the Capitol, Senators seem just as eager to pack up and move on; 14 Senators retired prior to the '96 election, the highest number in at least a half-century. Turnover has been so high in recent years that 42 of the 100 Senators now serving are in their first term.

Curiously, all of these open seats seem as attractive to potential candidates as tickets for a ride on the ill-fated great ship. In an article in the March 15 New York Times, Richard Berke documents the difficulties both parties are having attracting quality candidates. Despite personal pleas from the President and Speaker of the House and promises of money from Washington, Republicans and Democrats from across the country are choosing to pass up the chance to serve.

In an age of celebrity worship and a competitive job market, you would think that a job that offered power, influence, name recognition, a salary of $136,700 a year and free mail would be a golden opportunity. But working in the most important legislative body in the world just doesn't have the appeal it once did.

In a way, this is understandable. After all, the demands placed on a representative--extensive travel, constant meetings and a lack of privacy--can pose a real burden on family life. Further, candidates must now raise hundreds of thousands of dollars just to run competitively. Months (and possibly even years) of flagrant solicitation just to keep your job is something few would want to endure. Further, in the age of "bimbo eruptions" and "I didn't inhale," skeletons seem eager to jump out of the closet at the slightest hint of public ambitions.

It's no secret that members of Congress are not exactly esteemed as dignified arbiters of the public good. Decades of Congress-bashing by opportunistic politicians coupled with high-profile scandals seem to confirm Mark Twain's famous statement that "there is no distinctly native American criminal class except Congress." Representatives such as Jay Kim (R-Calif.), the first member of Congress convicted of a federal crime to cast a vote in the House (he was found guilty of accepting illegal campaign contributions), only confirm this perception.

Considered alongside the high-paying opportunities available for former representatives in lobbying, ritzy law firms and the media, it is no surprise that one would want to leave Congress and others would want to avoid the aggravation of working there in the first place. In fact, it could even be argued that the current trends are a good thing.

Phil Sharp--a Democratic House member from Indiana for 20 years, later the director of Harvard's Institute of Politics and currently a professor at the Kennedy School--argues that Congress may be less important today than it once was. "Someone who wants to make a difference might have a greater impact from a prominent position in the State House than as a first-term Congressman," Sharp claims.

Further, Sharp points out that just five to 10 years ago everyone was complaining that you couldn't get anyone to leave Congress. Now, thanks to the high turnover of seats, "new blood can work its way into the system."

Throughout American history Congress has experienced periods of high and low attention. We are now in a low period. While things may be running smoothly, it is crucial that steps be taken to address the negative perceptions so many hold about serving in Congress.

The real problem with high Congressional turnover is one of quality rather than quantity. Significant campaign finance reform, less tolerance for negative, personal campaigns and greater respect for elected officials would go a long way to ensuring that quality members remain and that good--not just new--people are willing to come aboard.

Rustin C. Silverstein '99 is a government concentrator at Lowell House. "On Politics" appears on alternate Fridays.

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