6 former members of Congress describe the moment they decided it was time to quit Capitol Hill — while in their prime
Sep 14, 2022
Schroeder, the first woman elected to federal office from the Rocky Mountain State back in 1972, had also endured a range of sexist indignities throughout her career in Congress. The ones that stood out were when the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, F. Edward Hébert, refused to give her a seat — he once remarked he would give her "half a seat" with the late Ron Dellums, who was Black — or when a local paper in Colorado referred to her as a "housewife" in the headline of a story about her historic victory. The ultimate decision to retire from Congress at age 56 in 1997, however, came down to one man: a brash congressman from Georgia whose US House speakership would permanently alter the tone and tenor of Washington. "I decided to call it quits after two years of Newt Gingrich," Schroeder, a Democrat, told Insider from her current home in Florida. "I kind of decided the place wasn't big enough for both of us, and I would come home at night and feel like I had been in a middle-school lunchroom fight all day." 'I want to quit early enough to make some money'
Four months in the making, Insider's " Red, White, and Gray " series explores the costs, benefits, and dangers of life in a democracy helmed by those of advanced age, where issues of profound importance to the nation's youth and future — technology, civil rights, energy, the environment — are largely in the hands of those whose primes have passed. Insider spoke with five former members of the US House, as well as one ex-senator, to understand why they decided to give up political power while in their prime. Rather than being ousted in a primary or general election — or even a scandal — these lawmakers decided on their own terms to quit serving on Capitol Hill. Both Republicans and Democrats agreed there's a dignified way to retire from Congress. But they warned that there are structural incentives for some lawmakers who arguably stay in Congress too long, from pensions and pay to more abstract considerations, such as whether they — or a new generation of leaders — should be driving the nation's legislative agenda. Former Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts said he set himself a hard retirement deadline of 75, realizing back in the 1980s that he wouldn't have to worry much about reelection for the foreseeable future, his district a safely Democratic one that stretched from the Bay State's South Coast region into Boston's suburbs. "I just thought that I was likely to hit a point when age started to show, and I also decided that I wanted to retire — it's a cliché, but a valid one — that I wanted the question to be 'Why are you quitting?' not 'Why aren't you quitting? '"
The congressman's timeline was slightly accelerated, as he left office in 2013 at the age of 73. Frank explained at the time that his newly drawn district would require him to meet scores of new voters, and he would only be representing a fraction of his previous constituents. In his interview with Insider, Frank added that his tenure as chairman of the House Financial Services Committee wore him down. This proved particularly true after his work on a bill that would bear his name — Dodd-Frank — which bolstered regulation of financial markets after the 2008 crash. Money also contributed to Frank's decision to retire. Former Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts announced his retirement in 2011. Darren McCollester/Getty Images
As the first congressman to voluntarily come out as gay, Frank had no plans of putting his money into his congressional pension plan, but once he realized he would marry his husband, Jim Ready, "then I began to think about, well — I want to quit early enough to make some money so that I leave Jim with something." Frank said he decided he wouldn't go into lobbying, but after doing some writing and paid speaking gigs, he was off to a relatively peaceful, and financially secure, retirement. 'I was not optimizing revenue'
Like other congressional retirees, former Democratic Rep. L.F. Payne of Virginia described making a considerable financial sacrifice while serving in Congress. Even though federal lawmakers generally earn $174,000 annually — hardly paupers' wages — many could easily make more as lawyers, lobbyists, consultants, and the like. However, as the president of the Association of Former Members of Congress, Payne said other incentives — including those that involve power and prestige — tend to make lawmakers stick around or eye the exits. Payne described a common feeling among lawmakers of being cash poor, with some sleeping in their offices or finding other more unusual arrangements to stave off the cost of frequent travel and maintaining a property both back in their home districts and Washington, DC. "Each year I was in Congress, I was not optimizing revenue, but that wasn't the point," Payne said. Former Rep. L.F. Payne of Virginia. Robert A. Reeder/The The Washington Post via Getty Images
The precipitating event ahead of his retirement wasn't a disdain for Congress or an external factor, such as redistricting. Rather, Payne thought he would be better suited for a more "executive"-type role, comparing legislatures to boards of a company. So Payne attempted a political career change. It didn't go as planned. Payne ran in — and lost — the 1997 Virginia lieutenant governor's race to Republican John H. Hager, who rode on the coattails of then Gov. Jim Gilmore in a landslide victory. "Being a governor is much more like being a chief executive, so there's a real difference in what kind of impact you can have," he said. He eventually joined McGuireWoods Consulting after the loss, then took a seat on the FMC board in 2016. Felt like 'a whole lifetime'
Even among the self-described "happy warriors," such as former Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, the mileage from consecutive terms catches up with them. Eventually. Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican, told Insider that while she loved serving just shy of 30 years in Congress, her service felt like "a whole lifetime." Ros-Lehtinen is now a lobbyist at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld. She calls the firm a "natural home for me" because of her work on foreign affairs and offers no apology for her career change. Former Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida. Miami Herald/Tribune News Service via Getty Images
While Ros-Lehtinen said she had a positive experience in Congress, the increase in partisan polarization and heated rhetoric has made serving on Capitol Hill more difficult. "People are increasingly being driven out because of the toxicity in Congress," she said. "It just seems that everybody's grumpy. They don't like what they're doing. It doesn't give them a sense of real satisfaction." For Schroeder, that erosion of congressional decorum began with the arrival of Gingrich, whom she blamed for breaking up bipartisan working groups and portraying Democrats as enemies, not the loyal opposition. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. YURI GRIPAS/AFP via Getty Images
"He just did not want any of that stuff, and if I would be talking to my friend Olympia Snowe or Connie Morella, somebody from other side would come over and tell them to get over on their side of the aisle," Schroeder said of her Republican colleagues. More money, more problems
Former Rep. Steve Israel of New York said that political fundraising pressures can exhaust lawmakers, with members often dedicating hours of their days to "call time," where they pick up the phone and ask donors for cash. Israel got a hyper-dose of call time during his stint as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the House Democrats' main fundraising arm. "Most of my days were spent getting on planes, getting off planes, and raising money," Israel told Insider. "And I made the decision that there are other things I could do with my life and fundamentally there came a time when you just need to give someone else a chance." 'When to hold 'em and when to fold 'em'
Israel noted that he likely could have kept winning elections for many years. "A lot of members of Congress make the decision not to run because they face the possibility of a stinging defeat," Israel said. "My decision not to run was based on the fact that I knew I was going to win in a Democratic district, and decided that it was time to turn the page." Former Rep. Steve Israel of New York. Bill Clark/Roll Call via Getty Images. Israel, along with Frank, expressed opposition to hard term limits on members of Congress, pointing to the danger of unelected staff becoming more powerful than elected officials — particularly with the help of special interests — as the holders of institutional and procedural knowledge. "I think, actually, term limits undermine long-term democracy," Israel said. "A typical member of Congress can spend three to five terms in office, but a K Street lobbyist can spend a lifetime." Frank pointed to the one mechanism that can't be changed as part of any effort to rejuvenate Congress: the voters. "The major factor that people don't bring up is that it's the voters who decide," Frank told Insider. "You know, this is not the House of Lords, so the question apparently is, I would say this: that people in their late 70s and 80s still being in office is seen as a problem much more by commentators than voters." On the Republican side, former Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi also spoke of making room for a new generation. Former Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi, right, speaks with former Vice President Dick Cheney in 2001. David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images
Lott retired at 67 — which puzzled some of his contemporaries. "Some of my friends came to me and said, 'Why are you leaving? You're in position to maybe get back in as leader,'" he recalled. "I said, 'I've been doing this for 35 years. Plus four years as a staff member. So you got to know when to hold 'em and when to fold 'em. And my wife said it was time for me to get a real job before it was too late." Schroeder, now 82, went further. She said federal lawmakers should have to retire at age 70, recalling members joking about "oh, to be 80 again." When asked if she still feels it was worth it to retire at 56 — even while colleagues from her time in Congress continue to serve — Schroeder didn't miss a beat. "Oh, absolutely."