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Congress of Quitters: Early Exits Promise Better Prospects, Less Bile

After a decade in the House, Rodney Alexander never made as much news as he did as a freshman, when he secured a hold on his northeastern Louisiana seat by quitting the Democratic Party just in time to run for re-election as a Republican.

But twice in as many days last week, Alexander made announcements that will ring with even louder echoes in the halls of Congress.

The first chime last week got the most attention because it fit so readily into a couple of the defining narratives of the current Congress.

The second may have more significance. It heralds the acceleration of a disquieting trend at the Capitol: members who just can’t take it anymore and are looking better (and higher paying) things to do.

Alexander initially declared, on Aug. 6, that he would be retiring at the end of his sixth term because he had no reason to believe the 114th Congress would be a more productive or enjoyable place of business.  “Rather than producing tangible solutions to better this nation, partisan posturing has created a legislative standstill,” he said. “Unfortunately, I do not foresee this environment to change anytime soon.”

That such a broadside would be delivered by a senior Republican was more evidence that dysfunction and low productivity have become just as dispiriting for those nominally in control of Congress as they have for the rest of the country.

That it came from a member of Appropriations, who just become senior enough to take a subcommittee gavel (Legislative Branch), is another sign that budgetary paralysis has set in for the long haul. With no stand-alone spending bill enacted on time since the fall of 2007 — a record guaranteed to be topped this year — there’s not much of a demand for old-school proponents of earmarking as the best possible legislative grease.

Having put a highlighter over those themes while announcing that he wouldn’t seek re-election, Alexander was back a day later with even more consequential news: He will be resigning altogether Sept. 26 so he can start a new career in Baton Rouge.

It’s the sixth time in the past year that an elected member has departed mid term for no other reason than the opportunity for another job they might like more. That kind of race for the exits has never been that fast.

The inference is clear: Quitting ahead of schedule and heading through the revolving door is no longer considered evidence of political weakness, a sign of disrespect to the institution or an affront to the donors and the voters. In Washington today, the virtue of perseverance has become passe, and it’s acceptable to cast aside one of the world’s most influential positions of public trust whenever something better, and almost always more lucrative, comes along.

In the quarter-century before last summer, 52 lawmakers died in office, 30 resigned because of scandal or poor health, and 44 left in the middle of their terms for more prominent jobs in public service. Seven left for think tanks, charities, universities or TV networks. Just nine quit so they could get a head start at boosting their salaries and leveraging their Rolodexes at K Street shops, trade associations or corporations.

Since then, the midway so-long scenario has happened five more times.

Within days of each other during the last August recess, a pair of House members planning their retirements resigned in a flash, each citing serious family problems without offering details. Hours after his announcement, California Democrat Dennis Cardoza was named managing director of the lobbying powerhouse Manatt, Phelps & Phillips. Kentucky Republican Geoff Davis waited until the middle of the lame-duck session before opening his own firm.

That December, after raising more than $1.4 million to win re-election with 72 percent in southeastern Missouri, Republican Jo Ann Emerson announced she was giving up her House seat just two months into her ninth term so she could take charge of the group that advocates for rural electric cooperatives.

Jo Bonner, a Republican appropriator like both Emerson and Alexander, spent $1.2 million while unopposed for a sixth term last year, then resigned seven months into the position that 196,000 people in southwestern Alabama had asked him to do for two years. He walked out of the House when August recess began so he could become top lobbyist for his state’s university system.

Most prominently of all, Jim DeMint raked in $7 million to hold his Senate seat for a second term in South Carolina in 2010, then decided a third of the way through that he could do more to advance Republican conservatism by  becoming president of the Heritage Foundation — which also pays at least six times the $174,000 congressional salary.

Alexander is unique on the past year’s roster in that he’s not becoming an influence peddler. His new job as secretary of his state’s Department of Veteran Affairs, in fact, means a 25 percent pay cut. So it’s hardly the sort of government promotion — to a Cabinet post, Senate seat governorship, mayor’s office or ambassadorship — that historically gets a congressman to turn in his voting card between elections.

That’s why the widespread view is that Alexander’s resignation has a motive as similarly self-serving as those of his former-colleagues-turned-advocates: Becoming part of Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal’s cabinet will position Alexander to run for governor in 2015, when he’ll turn 69 and the incumbent is term-limited.

It’s a sweet arrangement, all the more so for being cloaked with anti-Washington fervor. But it’s also the sort of ever-more-common maneuver that gives the lawmakers left behind an even worse reputation than they already have.