Skip to content

Defeated Lawmakers Trek From the Hill to Middle Earth — And Beyond

Life after Congress has included ambassadorships for dozens

Former Sen. Scott Brown was nominated by President Donald Trump to be U.S. ambassador to New Zealand. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Former Sen. Scott Brown was nominated by President Donald Trump to be U.S. ambassador to New Zealand. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

If three makes a trend and four creates a pattern, then dispatching favored congressional losers to New Zealand has become not just a sliver but a pillar of the American diplomatic order. 

When Scott Brown takes over the embassy in Wellington by this summer — his confirmation virtually assured thanks to the endorsements of both Democratic senators who have defeated him — the onetime matinee idol for Republican centrists will become the fourth former member of Congress who’s assumed that particular ambassadorship after being rejected by the voters.

It’s a curious criterion for filling the position, because getting defeated in a prominent campaign for the Senate provides no obviously important experience for representing the United States to one of its most prominent and loyal allies on the Pacific Rim.

But such is the rarely predictable, although often political, nature of how a president chooses his envoys to the world — a process that seems destined to look as mercurial as ever now that President Donald Trump has taken over.

As his presidency passed the symbolic 100-day mark, in addition to Brown, the president has tapped candidates for only a half dozen of the most prominent ambassadorships, among them Gov. Terry E. Branstad of Iowa for China, former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. of Utah to Russia, the president’s bankruptcy lawyer David Friedman for Israel and New York Jets owner Woody Johnson for the United Kingdom.

With more than 180 positions still open, frenzied lobbying for the choicest continues to intensify, mainly among the legions of generous Republican donors hoping to be rewarded with a plush posting, mostly in the Caribbean or Western Europe.

But, if the past is any prologue, at least a couple of the jobs will go to onetime lawmakers — some hoping a toehold in the diplomatic corps will restart a public service career cut short by their constituents, others seeking a life other than lobbying after leaving the Capitol voluntarily.

Peter Hoekstra of Michigan, a former House Intelligence chairman who retired in 2010, is eyeing a return to the Netherlands, where he was born. Randy Neugebauer of Texas, a senior member of House Financial Services who left at the end of last year, is getting mentioned for Mexico.

There’s also a chance that Trump, who’s already cherry-picked several lawmakers for his Cabinet, will fill a premier ambassadorship with an incumbent on the Hill. Each of the three previous presidents has done so, most recently when President Barack Obama persuaded Democrat Max Baucus three years ago to relinquish the Senate Finance Committee chairmanship and become envoy to Beijing.

One member of the Trump senior team, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, was ambassador to Germany for almost four years in between his stints as a GOP senator from Indiana.

Altogether, nine members of Congress have resigned to take ambassadorships in the past century and 56 others — precisely split between the parties — have assumed such posts since Word War I after lawmaking tenures, a search of the Biographical Directory of the United States Congress reveals.

(Composite by Chris Hale/CQ Roll Call)
(Composite by Chris Hale/CQ Roll Call)

Parting gift

Brown is now slated to join that roster as something of a consolation prize, his widely expected nomination for Veterans Affairs secretary disappearing after a reportedly disastrous job interview with Trump during the transition.

Endorsing Trump just before his crucial victory in the New Hampshire primary has breathed new life into Brown’s mercurial public career. Running as an outsider moderate, the onetime Cosmopolitan centerfold and state legislator scored one of the bigger upsets in recent congressional history in 2010 to become the first GOP senator from Massachusetts in 32 years. But he lost to Elizabeth Warren two years later, then relocated next door to New Hampshire but came up short in his 2014 challenge to Sen. Jeanne Shaheen. He’s been a contributor to Fox News since then.

The New Zealand Herald has signaled its approval of Brown, hailing the choice of “a former nude model who supports waterboarding.”

The other former members who went to New Zealand were Carol Moseley Braun, posted at the end of the Clinton administration following her defeat in Illinois in 1998 for a second term as the first African-American female senator; Armistead Selden, a House member who lost the Democratic primary for an open Alabama Senate seat in 1968, switched to the GOP after Richard Nixon sent him overseas but then failed in his second Senate try; and Robert Hendrickson, who got the job in the Eisenhower administration after his anti-Joe McCarthy stand effectively cost him the 1954 GOP nomi­nation for a second Senate term from New Jersey.

All the while, the country has been among the most reliable, important and breathtakingly gorgeous non-NATO allies of the United States.

And its temperate beauty combined with its remoteness has helped make it a relocation hot spot for those disaffected with the new president.

Since the election, The Associated Press reported, there have been surges of both American tourists and U.S. applicants for Kiwi work visas and citizenship. (The craze may have been egged on by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who joked last summer that “It’s time for us to move to New Zealand” would be her reaction to a Trump victory.)

Popular destinations

Only two other plum diplomatic posts have been filled by more people with congressional experience.

Five have been ambassador to the United Kingdom, although none since the Truman administration.

And a cluster of six nationally prominent figures have been ambassadors to the United Nations — including Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. after losing his Massachusetts Senate seat and before becoming Nixon’s 1960 running mate, George Bush after he left his Houston House seat in 1970, and Andrew Young between his stints as Atlanta’s congressman and mayor.

Japan has long pressed for a U.S. envoy who’s a well-known political name, most recently Caroline Kennedy, and four of her predecessors gained global stature from time in the top echelons of congressional power: Democratic senator and Vice President Walter Mondale, Democratic House Speaker Thomas S. Foley, and a pair of Senate majority leaders, Democrat Mike Mansfield and Republican Howard Baker.

But this time, Trump has gone a different route, tapping Tennessee private equity firm founder William Hagerty.

In the past century, meanwhile, just 13 people have come to the Hill after serving as ambassadors, and three are in the House today:  Democrat Donald S. Beyer Jr. of Virginia represented Clinton in Switzerland, while Republicans Ann Wagner of Missouri (Luxembourg) and Francis Rooney of Florida (the Vatican) were tapped by President George W. Bush.

The roster of congressional alumni includes only 215 women and just six of them, all prominent voices in their legislative days, went on to diplomatic careers. Moseley Braun and Lindy Boggs, a veteran New Orleans congresswoman before becoming Clinton’s Vatican envoy, are the only Democrats.

The others were all House Republicans. Claire Booth Luce of Connecticut was the first woman confirmed for a premier U.S ambassadorship and headed to Italy in 1953. President Ronald Reagan sent Millicent Fenwick to the U.N. Agencies for Food and Agriculture after she lost the 1982 Senate race in New Jersey. Margaret Heckler of Massachusetts, ousted from her House seat that same year, was Reagan’s second-term envoy to Ireland after a rocky stint as Health and Human Services secretary. And when prominent GOP moderate Constance A. Morella was defeated in Maryland in 2002, she spent five years as envoy to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.

There was rampant speculation that, had Hillary Clinton been elected, Nancy Pelosi would have had her choice of diplomatic sinecures as a thank-you present for departing after 14 years as leader of the House Democrats. But like so much else about the intersection of diplomacy and Congress, those predictions proved wholly premature.

Recent Stories

Key results from Georgia runoff, Virginia and Oklahoma primaries

CBO: Deficits and inflation higher, but so is economic growth

Senate Democrats try maneuver to pass ban on ‘bump stocks’

Senate report piles on new allegations of Boeing safety failures

Matt Gaetz goes on offensive as House Ethics offers update on probe

Senate spectrum bill markup scrapped over partisan differences