The Crowd At Union Station

From New Jersey to Texas to Oregon, they're fed up with partisan wrangling and nonstop money chasing on Capitol Hill. They think it's high time for congressional term limits.

American voters? Nope. Lawmakers themselves. Fearful of growing public disgust with Washington's ways, members of Congress are suddenly rushing for the exits in record numbers. Since last fall's elections, 33 House members (24 Democrats and nine Republicans) have announced their retirement or resigned. And 13 Senators have departed, too (eight Democrats, five Republicans).

The exodus reaches far beyond the old or the politically feeble. On Dec. 9, Representative Kweisi Mfume (D-Md.), 47, a leading black liberal, announced that he will soon quit to become chief executive officer of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. "It was clear to me that I could do much more outside than I could do inside Congress," Mfume said at the time. Two days later, rising conservative star Jack M. Fields Jr. (R-Tex.) stunned colleagues by giving up his chair of the House Telecommunications Subcommittee to return to the family funeral-home business in Humble. "I missed my five-year-old's first step, her first word, and her first school play," Fields announced. "It was time to go home."

All told, the departures "are a plus for business," grins GOP lobbyist Thomas C. Korologos. Many of the departing Republicans are moderates, who stand to be replaced by GOP conservatives. The Republicans will also likely profit from the eight Democratic Senate retirements. The upshot: improved prospects for tort reform, stringent caps on product-liability awards, inheritance tax relief, more business tax cuts, and repeal of the Davis-Bacon Act, which requires government contractors to pay union-level wages.

The retirees themselves share little but a common disgust with increasing incivility and polarization in Congress. Hill life has become ever more unpalatable for centrists, who find themselves outnumbered by unyielding partisans on the left and right. "The average citizen primarily wants his or her elected officials to use common sense for the common good," moderate Senator Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) said in announcing his departure, "but too often those voices are drowned out by the extremes of both parties who are usually wrong but never in doubt." Adds Rutgers University political scientist Ross K. Baker: "We're seeing the casualties now. We don't have the guillotine--but we do have political self-immolation."

Although the retirees span the political spectrum, they fall into several distinct groups:

-- DIXIE DEMOCRATS. Already this year, Democrats have lost 15 Southern lawmakers to retirement. Four more have switched over to the Republican Party. Most are moderate conservatives who are frustrated at their party's liberal Hill leadership and worried about reelection. "The South is becoming more inhospitable to Democrats," says Brookings Institution congressional scholar Thomas E. Mann.

-- THE UPWARDLY MOBILE. Eight House Democrats have decided to run for the Senate rather than face another day of House GOP domination under Speaker Newt Gingrich. Representative Robert G. Torricelli (D-N.J.) is giving up a safe seat to enter the race to succeed retiring Senator Bill Bradley. Representative John Bryant (D-Tex.) will join Democratic colleague Jim Chapman in a bid to upset Republican Senator Phil Gramm.

-- THE GRAY WAVE. Unseemly quarrels on Capitol Hill are driving away an unusually large group of aging GOP moderates. Among them: Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Mark O. Hatfield, 73 (R-Ore.); Senate Labor Committee Chairman Nancy Kassebaum, 63 (R-Kan.); and House Small Business Committee Chairman Jan Meyers, 67 (R-Kan.). "A lot of the senior Republicans have decided they are bit players as the Hezbollahs take over Congress," says Representative Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.), who announced her retirement at the relatively young age of 55 on Nov. 29. She did not state what she plans to do once her term ends.

-- ONE-TIME STARS. Younger members have even decided they would rather quit than fight. Republican Senator Hank Brown, a promising first-termer, wants to return to Colorado at age 55. Representative Bill K. Brewster (D-Okla.), a 54-year-old ex-cattle rancher and influential conservative, says he "always intended to return to private business."

The exodus may not come to an end in 1996. However, many of the Democratic Party's old lions are hanging on in hopes of regaining the majority and evicting Gingrich from the Speaker's chair. If they fail, another massive wave of retirements in 1998 could follow. "Nobody will talk about term limits again," says GOP lobbyist Wayne Valis. There's no need to, when lawmakers do it themselves.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.