Former Reps. Dennis Hertel (D-Mich.)and Connie Morella (R-Md.) were enjoying coffee and chatting in a House dining room, but their conversation kept getting interrupted.
Rep. Ralph Hall (R-Texas) stopped them on their way in to vigorously shake hands with his old colleagues. Once they sat down, four other current and former Members of Congress paused to say hello.
Hertel and Morella weren’t on Capitol Hill on Tuesday specifically to see old friends, but they couldn’t help running into them.
The two were on the Hill for the 41st Annual Meeting of the Association of Former Members of Congress, and more than 30 other former Members experienced that same sense of familiarity as they walked the halls of Congress for the day’s events.
The FMC organizes former Members to engage in public service in a variety of ways, ranging from study trips to foreign nations to providing former Members to speak on U.S. college and high school campuses.
They also frequently engage with current Members and other actors in the policy process, often “filling in the blanks” when Members’ busy schedules don’t allow them to be available for events.
“Former Members traditionally have more time and certainly have the experience, and they’re not running for re-election, they’re not raising money, so it’s a great opportunity to utilize a resource of committed people,” explained Morella, vice president of the FMC.
Because these former Members aren’t running for Congress, those conversations with students or current Members often can be very off-the-cuff. And for former Members’ home states and the rest of the nation, those conversations are a valuable source of information about what’s happening in the current Congress.
“There’s these outlandish distortions,” said Hertel, president of the FMC. “We’re grappling with these serious problems of the deficit and the economy, and at least we should get a factual basis for the discussion. That’s something that we bring credibility to.”
The association also aims to promote bipartisanship in a government body that has become increasingly polarized. Hertel said this polarization has created a more combative atmosphere among Members that wasn’t as apparent during his time in Congress.
“We didn’t see an adversary that we differed with totally on policy as an enemy at all, we saw our adversary as someone who also loved our country and had great respect for the institutions … and a different viewpoint,” he said. He added that even though members of the FMC don’t lose their strong partisan values, they view their role in public service as a more bipartisan one.
The annual gathering included a charity golf tournament Monday and a panel Tuesday morning with the media about the state of the political atmosphere. The group also came together to present former Sen. John Warner (R-Va.) with an award for distinguished service.
Regardless of events planned or meetings scheduled, former Members will probably always come together, as government is a passion for many of them, Morella said.