How Congress Offers the Worst Job in America, Starring Kay Bailey Hutchison, a Former Dallas Mayor and Others

Categories: Cover Story

Featured-Art-congress-worst-job-feature-art-scott-anderson.jpg
Scott Anderson
Imagine, in a moment of suspended disbelief, that your job pays 174 grand a year. And comes with a $1.3 million expense account. And a staff of eighteen Ivy League yes-men whose sole duty is to bray loud and wide about the miracle that is you -- when they're not babysitting your kids or fetching your dry cleaning, that is.

You get free travel to anywhere on the globe. A private dining room and a private gym replete with swimming pool, sauna and steam bath.

Best of all, you're only required to show up for the equivalent of four months per year.

Former congressman Tom Tancredo had this life for a decade. By the time it was over, he'd caught that affliction known to anyone who hates his job: a fear of Monday mornings. "As I drove to work, I'd get a knot in my stomach, and it would just start to grow," Tancredo says.

Here's why:

8. Think of your day as a Bataan Death March of meetings.

The meeting. It's the most nefarious act in the American workplace, an assault of trudging monologues and plans never to be fulfilled.

Yet this is your life as a legislator. Meeting. After meeting. After meeting.

Your mornings begin with committee hearings. But since most members serve on four to seven different committees, "you can't just go to one hearing and sit," says former representative Steve Bartlett (R-Texas).

After all, the line outside your office began forming at 8 a.m. There are staffers, constituents, and captains of industry all wanting...meetings. Never mind the 12,000 registered lobbyists, who may suddenly lack the stamina to write a check if they can't get a sit-down.

So you knock them out in breakneck succession, with barely time to lob pleasantries and get down to business. "Everything in a congressman's life is scheduled within fifteen-minute increments, and oftentimes you're double-booked," says Bartlett, who subsequently became mayor of Dallas before heading a Wall Street advocacy group.

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Tancredo's day would usually begin at 6 a.m., lest his commute turn into a grinding two-hour pilgrimage courtesy of the D.C. rush hour. His meetings would run for the next ten hours. If the Colorado Republican wanted to speak on the House floor, he would still be working at 11 p.m., when a slot finally opened on the schedule.

Yes, it could all be a heady experience. "Powerful people beg for your vote," says one Capitol Hill staffer. "Ego-wise, it's an orgy at the Playboy Mansion."

It can also be enriching. Tancredo warmly recalls the deluge of information available nowhere else. "Every day you learned more shit about more shit," he says. "It was like a college education every couple of weeks."

The downside is that all this activity is usually for naught.

After all, this is a job of rigorous self-interest. Passing meaningful legislation only jeopardizes your survival, since it places your vote on a tee, there to be hammered by character-assassinating ads in the next election. So rather than act today, it's always best to speak of intended heroics in distant battles to come.

That means the most common vote you'll take is to rename a post office somewhere, which amounts to 20 percent of all legislation passed. According to former senator Alan Simpson (R-Wyoming), it's now all about running out the clock. "It's simply how do you stall until you get through the next election so you don't lose seats."

7. You will attend many parties. They will blow.

Washington is a party town. Bartlett often went to four a night, twelve months a year.

Yet D.C.'s definition of "partying" hews closer to the 1870s sense of the word. You will not lose yourself on the dance floor. You will not wolf shots of pomegranate vodka and end up sharing a bong with a ventriloquist named Renaldo at 4 a.m.

What you will do is shmooze and be shmoozed at dinners, receptions and fundraisers, where the most unrefined moment will involve a woman wearing pastel out of season.

"The typical reception was about a fifteen-minute in-and-out," Bartlett says. "Most bartenders would prepare 'the congressional drink' -- which is usually orange juice -- as soon as you come in."

Yes, there's a good chance that someone will buy you a steak the size of a sub-Saharan principality. But there's also a good chance that you'll be seated next to a lobbyist for the American Coalition for Clean Coal, who will treat you to a soliloquy on the respiratory benefits of airborne toxins.

"They're not a respite," says Tancredo, who's now running for governor of Colorado. "They're usually with contributors to the party, and you're supposed to shmooze. They're not always comfortable."

Worse, these events have a way of trampling lesser egos.

Washington is often referred to as "Hollywood for ugly people." But since there are 535 members of Congress, only the most prominent get the all-hands-on-deck obsequiousness reserved for Brangelina and Clooney. If you're a freshman from Minnesota or a back-bencher from Missouri, expect to play the role of Tori Spelling.

Connie Schultz knows the drill. She's the author of And His Lovely Wife, a memoir of campaigning with her husband, Senator Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio). Though she may be a Pulitzer Prize-winning syndicated columnist, she's well acquainted with what's known as the "D.C. scalp stare" -- the practice of looking over the head of the person with whom you're speaking, preparing to leap at first sight of someone more important entering your field of vision.

"People are always looking over your shoulder as you're talking to them to see who else is coming in," she says. "It's ambitious, and it can be so impersonal."


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35 comments
TheRuddSki
TheRuddSki topcommenter

It will be interesting to read the post-mortems on Obama's wails & travails, which are already appearing as though he's already gone due to the assumption of many that he'll face a republican Senate. Looks like his remaining days will be spent issuing quasi-legal Executive orders, golfing, and letting people know that he is angry.

ozonelarryb
ozonelarryb

The poor dears. I'm not weeping for them or the lifetime salary. Swine.

ozonelarryb
ozonelarryb

A meeting...an event at which the minutes are kept, but the hours lost.

ozma207
ozma207

The two year term for the House of Representatives undoubtedly made sense in the 18th Century with no mass media but today it means that the newly-elected House member has to immediately get to work...trying to get enough campaign money to be reelected.

Sotiredofitall
Sotiredofitall topcommenter

"since most members serve on four to seven different committees" - many of which are redundant and only exist to pump-up the members ego/resume    Call the waambulance

PlanoDave
PlanoDave

Waiting for:


1.  Myrna to relate this all somehow to cats or Jimmy John's delivery boys.

2.  Bucky, Donkey or Cogito to blame it all on the republicans/libertarians/conservatives


ScottsMerkin
ScottsMerkin topcommenter

I read page 1 and gave up.  I may need a drink at lunch and then I will return to read the rest.  Or maybe ill just go back to antagonizing the open carry thread

Greg820
Greg820

Congress can design their job any way they want.  This is what they want.  It keeps the intelligent and impassioned out and the mindless panderers in. 

Tim.Covington
Tim.Covington

If you wonder why nobody you really like runs for office, this is it.

PlanoDave
PlanoDave

@TheRuddSki Nah.  He will be ruling by "pen and phone".  Like the way his administration ignored the law when it traded prisoners for the deserter and the new EPA regs.

rogjohns64
rogjohns64

@bvckvs


They're all owned by Voice Media Group.


Pete Kotz works for Voice Media Group.


..... this was btw, one of the better written articles I've seen here.


.... I dont think he singled out heterosexual white men for a good bashing even once.


..... he must be new or something ..... needs to get with the DO/VV program if he wants to stick around long.

PlanoDave
PlanoDave

@bvckvs A quick click on your two links shows that all three articles claim Pete Kotz as the author.  The dude sold his story to several publications.  Good for him.


What's this about? This is about the thousandth time you have looked foolish, but not much more.

wcvemail
wcvemail

@ozonelarryb

Finally, I looked that one up, and it's not true.

First, the congress critter must have served at least six years (2.5 House terms, or 1 Senate term); not strict, but not the "after just one term" rumor. A pol who puts in six years AND meets the retirement age criterion pulls in about $17.5K/yr, pretty generous but not really enough to live on.

Second, the Congress critter must be age 62, or be at least age 50 with 20 years of service, or be any age with 25 years of service. This is very similar to State or other federal employment (but don't get me started on Perry earning retirement benefits while simultaneously running for Pres with State office and security paid for.)

Third, the pension is based on a formula including the top-paid years' average and more factors, so that a 25-yr pol would receive about $67K/yr in retirement. That's pretty good, but it's not the ~$174K/yr salary paid to House members.

http://www.politifact.com/ohio/statements/2013/jan/11/chain-email/can-members-congress-retire-full-pay-after-just-on/

wcvemail
wcvemail

@ozonelarryb

"Football combines the two worst things about America: it is violence punctuated by committee meetings." George Will (baseball fan)

wcvemail
wcvemail

@ozma207

Sometimes I wish that Congress should be like jury duty or the military draft, summoning every qualified citizen for a tour of duty, after which most would return to their regular occupation, but enough would stick around to perpetuate the system with continual refreshes from the outside, real world. Then I think about the 1000s of faceless yet powerful committee staffers who never stand for election, but have subpoena power and more, and think how they could take advantage of me or you coming in to serve our two-year sting.

MikeWestEast
MikeWestEast

@Sotiredofitall  The resume pumping happens when you get the Chairman title.  With so many committees, you likely can reach it by 3rd term if in majority.  Just being on a committee means nothing.

TheCredibleHulk
TheCredibleHulk topcommenter

@ScottsMerkin

I'll save you the trouble and offer this succinct synopsis:

Narcissism rampant in D.C. political class.

MikeWestEast
MikeWestEast

@ThePosterFormerlyKnownasPaul  Ed Beard, Congressman from Rhode Island in 1981 went back to being a bartender.  If you know anything about Central Falls, you will know it was not one of those wimpy Kung Fu Uptown locations.  Bars in Central Falls are three steps below the place that Joe Pesci beat that Batz guy to death in Goodfellas.

TheRuddSki
TheRuddSki topcommenter

@TheCredibleHulk

That's taxable.

TheRuddSki
TheRuddSki topcommenter

@PlanoDave

Yep, but in regards to Iraq and Afghanistan - as with any war, the winner gets to dictate terms. That's how the Taliban got such a great deal, which of course is bad for America, our military and anyone else but the deserter an his anti-American dad.

But, since as usual nothing will be done about Obama's lawlessness, Expect Gitmo to be emptied before the end of the year.

I'm beginning to wonder if Obama will abide by the 22nd amendment, seeing as how he seems not inconvenienced by laws he doesn't like.

ozonelarryb
ozonelarryb

Even so, the idea of pension is kinda nuts. If they are too stupid to get rich off the inside knowledge, they are too stupid to be there, and even if they get reelected 20 times, they shouldn't be rewarded for the stupidity.

dingo
dingo

@wcvemail @ozonelarryb 

Mandatory committee meetings if it was up to Nick Saban.

wcvemail
wcvemail

@ozma207

that last word should have been "stint", but I had to point out that it could have been a truer-than-I-realized thing.

Sotiredofitall
Sotiredofitall topcommenter

@MikeWestEast  Means nothing is reality but plays big with the low information voter come re-election time

Sotiredofitall
Sotiredofitall topcommenter

@TheCredibleHulk @ScottsMerkin Recommend reading "This Town" for a nice look at the DC swamp - became so repulsed had to stop in the middle and take a break for a couple weeks before finishing.

TheRuddSki
TheRuddSki topcommenter

@bvckvs

It was about the ridiculousness of a publisher using the same article as a "cover story" on three different publications.

It's a nationally-oriented story, it makes sense for a publishing group to give it as much national exposure as possible, it's not at all out of the ordinary, if you know anything about publishing, business, or the publishing business.

The only oddity is why the Observer ran this as a blog item, rather than a feature story.

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