Mr. Smith Leaves Washington
Three members of Congress who decided not to seek re-election explain why they grew disillusioned -- and how to change a stalemated system
BY STANLEY W. CLOUD and NANCY TRAVER/WASHINGTON and Tim Wirth, Kent Conrad and Vin Weber
(TIME, June 8, 1992) -- So far this year, 56 members of Congress have announced that they will not seek re-election in November, the largest voluntary departure since World War II. Among those who have decided not to return are Democratic Senators Tim Wirth of Colorado and Kent Conrad of North Dakota and Republican Congressman Vin Weber of Minnesota. At a round-table session, Wirth, Conrad and Weber discussed their reasons for leaving and how their attitudes toward government and public service were changed by their experiences in Washington. Excerpts:
Q. How can Congress be strengthened so it functions in ways that make sense to people like you and the people who will succeed you?
WIRTH: Let me start with campaign-finance reform. Congress is awash in money. Interests have emerged that have enormous amounts of cash and that stand between the Congress and its constituency. In my 18 years in the Congress, I have seen the denominator of debate get lower and lower, and I think much of that is explained by fear -- fear that you will be unable to raise money from a certain group; or worse, that the interest group will give the money to the other guy; or worse still, that the money will go to a third party as a so-called independent expenditure. We need reform that would do three things: provide shared public-private funding, similar to the current system for presidential campaigns; second, limit how much a candidate can spend; and third, ensure nonincumbents of enough money to be competitive -- which would, by the way, ensure better members of Congress.
WEBER: I question the impact of special-interest money on policy. The contribution limit for a special-interest group [$5,000] has not changed in the 12 years that I've been here. That means the value of each contribution has eroded considerably. So how can we argue it's an increasing problem?
WIRTH: I just came from a discussion on product-liability reform. The room was filled with trial lawyers -- and with fear of them. The problem isn't just that trial lawyers donate campaign money, but they can give a maximum of $5,000 in the primary and $5,000 in the general, and they're a phalanx that can have an effect on every candidate who's out there. And it isn't just money. It's also all the emoluments and blandishments.
WEBER: But I think the impact of special-interest groups is greater when they're organizing voters in your district. Take, for example, [groups like] the American Association of Retired Persons or the National Federation of Independent Businesses. Their ability to organize makes them more of a power than the amount of a check they might write. Yet I'm sure none of us want to curtail the ability of people to organize and express themselves.
CONRAD: Perhaps it's because I come from a state in which we have relatively modest demands for [political] money, but I don't feel this pressure from groups. As far as I'm concerned, the real problem here is time or the lack of it. As I left for home the other evening at 7 o'clock, which is usually the case, I looked back on the day and decided it was typical: meetings with constituents from home, fund raising, committee meetings. I'm on four committees. Three of the committees met at the same time that particular day. I never did get to the Senate floor because of meetings with constituents literally every 15 minutes. I came to Washington because I was deeply concerned about the budget deficit. I thought it was wrecking the country. I still do. I'm also very concerned about education and health care. But none of those things got a moment of thought or attention that day. People ask me why the Senate seems to always come out at night to vote . . .
WIRTH: Like bats.
CONRAD: Yes, and the answer is because nobody's got time during the day. You have endless meetings and endless demands: speeches, appearances, getting your picture taken with the kids from back home.
WEBER: Ironically, technology puts us closer to our constituents than earlier Congresses were. It used to be that not many groups could just pick up and come to Washington. Now every organized group comes at least once a year. There was a time when members of Congress couldn't get back to their districts every weekend, and that was probably a good thing. Now you're expected to be back very often. Technology and transportation have made it possible for us to be much closer to our constituents, and I'm not sure it's doing us any good.
Q. To what extent is the problem a lack of leadership in Congress?
WIRTH: In the 1986 election, 80% of my time was spent raising money -- not talking to constituents, not thinking, not going to seminars. All of us are entrepreneurs. The leadership has no handle on us. They can't really do anything for us or to us. So the place gets more and more horizontally structured, and every time we have a vote, [Senate majority leader] George Mitchell's got to get out on his horse and try to round up 57 heifers, who are in pastures all over the place. The leadership has no power anymore.
WEBER: I think the erosion of the political parties is to blame for much of what's wrong. Certainly, parties were once corrupt and needed reform. But now they are unable to play the role they should play -- as filters between special-interest groups and individual officeholders. I think you need to try to strengthen the parties.
CONRAD: There are four things that create weakened leadership. I'd start with finances. We are separate operators. We raise our own money. So that creates a dynamic. Second, the advent of the 30-second ad, which I think has a very real impact on how things work up here. We're having many more votes -- at least that's true in the Senate -- partly because people want to get out there on some narrow issue and turn it into a 30-second ad. We've spent hours and hours on legislation, amendments, that are really designed to create 30-second ads. Third is the Balkanization of Congress. When you've got to refer a bill to nine separate committees on the House side -- the energy bill is going to seven or nine committees -- I mean, how do you ever get through the process? And finally, we are suffering from a lack of presidential leadership as well. The Congress is not the Executive. In our system there is only one person able to get TV network attention, go to the country, describe the condition of our nation, have a plan of action, persuade people of the need for change. That's the President.
Q. Would it help if we didn't have divided government, if the presidency and Congress were controlled by the same party?
CONRAD: Maybe, but I think it depends on the kind of President you have. Today I think we have a leadership failure of substantial proportions.
WEBER: As a Republican, I obviously disagree. Divided government is one of the central problems of our time. I know exactly what goes into the Bush Administration's thinking processes when they decide not to take a strong leadership role on something -- economic growth, say, or welfare. They look at the numbers in Congress and correctly decide that they are unlikely to get a legislative product they can live with. I would like to see them get into the fight anyway. I think it would probably be helpful, both to the country and to my party. But I can't disagree with their decision. The impact of 12 years of both parties blaming each other and of both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue blaming each other is debilitating to the country and to the process, to the institution of the presidency, to the institution of the Congress. Yet I don't think the public is ready to give the entire government to one party. They like divided government. They don't trust either political party. I am frightened by the prospect of four more years of gridlock if we have four more years of a Republican President and a Democratic Congress.
WIRTH: Our system was set up as a reflection of the Founders' deep suspicion of central government. But there have been leaders in modern times and in the past who have been able to mobilize this awkward and very difficult system. Much as I disagreed with Ronald Reagan, he was, in the first three or four years of his term, able to move things. He believed in something and he got it done. A President can set an agenda, can be a rudder. Without such a rudder, each of us in Congress maneuvers for narrow personal or partisan advantage. There's no common cause.
WEBER: Let me make clear that even though I think divided government is a very serious problem, we desperately need an agenda-setting campaign. The Bush people ought to resist the temptation to have just a symbolic or gimmicky campaign -- Willie Horton or something like that.
CONRAD: I think the media also bear substantial responsibility for the frustrations people feel about government. Reporters are chasing every rabbit of scandal, and it's not healthy. Journalists have gone from a healthy skepticism to a destructive cynicism. The House bank story has got far more attention that it deserved. Meantime, virtually no attention is being paid to the $400 billion worth of hot checks being written by the Federal Government. I think the media fail to deal with substance in favor of any minor scandal that comes along.
Q. Why is that?
WIRTH: You tell us.
WEBER: We are in a decaying spiral of public confidence. The public does not trust the institutions; they don't trust the political parties. It used to be, "I hate the Congress, but I love my Congressman." Now they've decided they hate their Congressman, too. Having fully discredited the parties and the institution, now we're discrediting the individuals. I'm not by nature a pessimist. I like to think that our system works and is going to right itself. But I see it decaying. I don't know what comes next after we have this tremendous cleaning-out election, mainly driven by discrediting people as individuals, and then the Congress gets together next year and people find we still are not going to reduce the deficit, we still are not going to reform health care.
WIRTH: When Kent decided not to run again, he said to me, "I just didn't enjoy the idea of coming to work every morning." Later I repeated that to my wife, and she said, "You've been saying the same thing for months." There is a common pact we all make -- that there is a role for government and that each of us can make a difference. Now that's missing. What's happened? It seems to me that many journalists feel they are somehow a culture unto themselves. It's as if they can't have any patriotism, they can't have any friends in Congress, they can't be committed to an idea or make a judgment that one idea is better than another idea. They're detached, very little involved in the process. There's enormous economic pressure put on reporters to do the short, USA Today-style piece, and that does not serve the hard work of government that we're all talking about.
WEBER: If we vote to raise congressional pay, the press galleries are filled. Have a serious debate about the deficit or defense, and we're lucky if two or three reporters cover it.
WIRTH: The massive scramble to get the list of who bounced checks, that corridor full of reporters. It was ya-hoo! It was like we were feeding all these people into a chute, and at the end of the chute was the list, and everybody was dashing to get it. Reporters were lusting after it. They know more about how the House bank works than how campaign-finance reform works.
CONRAD: I've been in public life for 18 years, and the change in the attitudes of people in the news business is dramatic. In the past three years, maybe a little bit longer than that, there has developed an attitude that everybody in public life is not honorable, that they are all corrupt, and it's just a matter of confirming it.
Q. Each of you has mentioned the problem of the federal deficit. How many of you have gone back to your constituents and said, The only way to cut the deficit is to cut either entitlements or defense?
[All three raise their hands.]
CONRAD: I have made a hundred presentations in my state. I show charts that illustrate the dimensions of the problem. It actually rivets people. But it's not the only way. It isn't just entitlements or defense or revenue or domestic programs. This thing is so big, everything has got to be on the plate, and when you explain that, it leads people to interesting conclusions.
WEBER: I had a reporter ask me the other day if I wasn't optimistic on the budget problem, because more and more candidates are talking about restraining entitlement growth. And I said, "Maybe in a very small way, but, unfortunately, that's what the candidates say -- `entitlement growth.' " When they speak at the Chamber of Commerce and the Kiwanis, very few of them translate those abstract words into "freezing Social Security" or "restricting Medicare eligibility." In Congress we don't get to vote on the abstraction. We have to vote for or against actual programs.
I still don't think there is agreement on the economic impact of the deficit. But we have come to the point where we can see that the one debilitating effect is that it has absolutely hamstrung our government.
WIRTH: There are some very interesting debates that should be conducted on this subject. One is, What do you use tax policy for -- growth or fairness? It's an enormously important question, but we never get to it. Another thing we should be debating is, What are we going to tax? We now tax investment and production. We tax labor, we tax capital. But the world out there is changing, and we probably should be looking at a value-added tax or a consumption tax. We ought to be looking at taxing environmental evils -- a carbon tax or something like that. But because we say, "Read my lips, no new taxes," you don't get into any of this, either. And such things are the stuff of government. We decide what's important to us by putting programs in the budget and raising taxes -- these steps reflect our values. But we never talk about these things.
WEBER: Part of the reason these issues are so hypersensitive is the underlying assumption that nothing will happen. You can give a speech about freezing Social Security benefits, and be convinced it's a good thing, and be fully aware that it's going to cost you a lot politically. But then you realize, Gee, we've got a Republican President and a Democratic Congress; it's not going to happen anyway. So should I go out and put myself at political risk to do something good for the country even when it's not even going to happen? It's the same for Democrats on raising taxes. Why campaign for an increase when the President will veto it?
Q. Would we be better off with a parliamentary system?
WEBER: I think some things need to be changed, but we can't and probably shouldn't go to a full-fledged parliamentary system. We set up this system of checks and balances and separation of powers partially to protect against the growth of government. But we now have a big government. So that argument is settled. The question is, Can we change our very large government that affects people in so many ways? We're preventing government from getting more responsive because we can't change the institutions that we built up over 200 years.
CONRAD: Talking about a parliamentary solution is falling into a distinctly American trap -- that there is a magic formula and if we just find it we can solve this problem. Canada has a parliamentary system, and Canada has a much higher debt-to-GNP than we do. We need leadership with vision. That could create a bipartisan response.
Q. If leadership is the problem, why don't the three of you stay and provide it?
CONRAD: In my case, I made a foolish promise [that he would not seek a second term if the deficit wasn't reduced]. And in our part of the country, people keep their word.
Q. Let's talk a bit more about the role of money and how it provides an advantage to incumbents.
CONRAD: I don't know that it does. I ran against an incumbent who had three times as much money as I did, and I defeated him. Incumbents have a record, and challengers often have a significant advantage in being able to go after that record.
WEBER: The best reform you can have is to say nobody can contribute to a candidate except an individual or a political party.
CONRAD: I think if you limit [campaign contributions] to just individuals and political parties, you have played into the hands of the wealthy. Frankly, I'd rather get money from PACS than wealthy individuals. With PACS you know the agenda. It's the homebuilders, it's the wheat growers, it's the sugar-beet people. With individual donors, in many cases you have no idea what the agenda is.
WEBER: I can't imagine that an individual thinks, when he gives $1,000 to my half-million-dollar campaign, that he's going to buy any influence.
CONRAD: Here's an example. In my last campaign, I ran against the incumbent, who had three times as much money as I had. I got $5,000 from the PAC of a specific group and got more than $20,000 in individual contributions from people who were family members and board members of that company. Now, to suggest that PACS are the problem stands everything on its head. The problem is the amount of money in campaigns.
WIRTH: The reason why these people get entrenched in the House is that the disparities of money are so huge. You have people in the House going into elections with $750,000 in the bank. And where is a nonincumbent going to raise any money, except through public financing?
Q. Do you see yourselves ever running for elective office again?
WEBER: Maybe. I turn 40 this summer. It's foolish to rule it out. I don't have any plan to run, but if I do, the only office that really intrigues me is Governor.
Q. You've had it with the legislative process. You want to be an executive?
WEBER: The legislative process is important. But it would be pretty hard to talk me into running for a Legislative Branch office again. I've become a born-again believer in term limitations, for the opposite reasons from [those of] most of the voters. I think term limitations are probably not good for the country, not good for the institution, but they are good for the individual members.
WIRTH: You never say never, but I can't imagine myself going through this process again. You get here with a certain enthusiasm, and then you don't want to do it anymore. But I could see being in some part of the Executive Branch at some point.
CONRAD: I just got off the phone with Ross Perot before coming here, and there will be an announcement on Friday. [Laughter.] No, I've told people back home I don't rule anything in or anything out. I'm 44 years old, so I'm too young to make Shermanesque statements.
WIRTH: I made a list, after I made my announcement, of the things I most dislike about the Senate, so that if I ever had doubts, I would have the list to go back to. Now I don't know where the list is. There are things I'll miss. I think most of the people here, on both sides, are honorable, hardworking, decent. I'll miss them, and I'll miss those times when we were able to make a difference.
AllPolitics home page|
Copyright © 1996 AllPolitics