Washington Is Becoming A City Of Amateurs

There's a chill wind blowing across Capitol Hill these days, and it's not just the change of seasons. Senators and representatives are looking at polls and deciding that maybe this term ought to be their last. That should produce another big wave of freshmen in the next Congress, on top of this year's crop of 117 House and 13 Senate newcomers. And the influx of first-termers will likely further erode the power of party leaders and committee chairmen--and, perhaps, create some room for fresh ideas.

Certainly, the early signs bode ill for incumbents. A recent Gallup Poll found that lawmakers have slipped below even lawyers and talk-show hosts in public esteem. A recent Democratic poll shows three-term Senator Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) trailing a possible Democratic opponent in 1994. In Wisconsin, Democratic Senator Herb Kohl was considered a shoo-in just six months ago. But a Republican poll in mid-September found that only 37% would vote for Kohl, while 40% preferred someone new.

WHY THE RUSH? Facing even grimmer numbers from home, Senate Banking Committee Chairman Donald W. Riegle Jr. (D-Mich.) on Sept. 28 became the sixth senator to say he won't run next year. In the House, 12 members have already announced their departures, an unusually large number considering that there's more than a year to go before the election.

Why the rush to the door? Stuart Rothenberg, editor of the Rothenberg Political Report, says several retirees, including scandal-plagued Senators Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.), David F. Durenberger (R-Minn.), and Riegle, were "terminally ill, politically." Others, such as Senator John C. Danforth (R-Mo.) and Representative Timothy J. Penny (D-Minn.), are "sick of the institution," Rothenberg says. Facing voter hostility and populist uprisings, incumbents "are grasping to find a meaningful reason to remain," says Democratic consultant Brian Lunde.

The coming campaign looks particularly grueling, and that will heighten the appeal of retirement. Polls have long found that voters liked their own representative even though they thought most members of Congress were bums. But a new survey by Public Opinion Strategies, a GOP firm, found that 54% of voters strongly agreed with the statement: "Congress isn't doing the job--and it is time for a change, even if it means voting against my congressman." Two years ago, only 38% wanted to dump their own lawmaker--and that anger scared nearly 90 incumbents into retirement and contributed to 37 defeats. "If incumbents believe that last year's turnover was just a short-term thing, they're in for a surprise," says Neil Newhouse, who conducted the survey.

Because many of the most vulnerable lawmakers saw the handwriting on the walls back home, the widely anticipated slaughter of incumbents didn't occur last year and, for the same reason, probably won't in 1994. Still, the effect on the institution is much the same. Nearly one-third of senators are first-termers, and 37% of House members took their seats in the past three years. After the next election, nearly half of Congress may have less than six years' seniority.

"Washington will be run by amateurs, which is both good and bad," says political scientist Darrell M. West of Brown University. "There will be fresh ideas and approaches that haven't been tried in the past." New members may overhaul hidebound procedures, but if recent experience is a guide, the partisan chasm between antitax Republican conservatives and an increasingly diverse crew of Democratic liberals will widen. That seems to be a risk the public is willing to take. While pressure for term-limit laws remains strong, voters are exercising a power they've always had--to scare the bums out.

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