Chris Stirewalt: Congress is great fun, until the voters turn sour 

Congress can be a lot of fun, if you've got the right attitude.

It's sort of like being one of the airmen locked up in Stalag 17. Some of the boys are trying to win the war from the inside, but others are happy just trading Red Cross chocolate with Sgt. Schultz for a little liberty.

As long as you don't think about what's going on outside, it can be a rather carefree existence.

In Congress, you can park wherever you like (when you're not being driven), and your office is filled with attractive young people who greet you cheerfully and tell you what a good job you are doing. There are lots of nice events where no one ever asks you to pay for a drink.

Yes, you may be helping to make some pretty dreadful legislation and be part of an institution that is the object of national scorn. But if you don't let yourself get down about those things, life in Washington can be pretty good.

But for the 535 members of Congress, the pleasant surreality is frequently interrupted by the need to campaign -- usually about three months every two years for incumbents -- and the endless grind of raising money.

You need the campaign contributions so you can stay around. The longer you stay, the better your perks get -- more staff, a better office, better parties, etc. And raising money gets easier every term.

But it used to be even better.

Until recently, the more powerful you became in Washington, the more invincible you became in your home state.

We've just seen the retirements of two of the most powerful Democratic members of the Senate: Connecticut's Chris Dodd, the sixth-most senior Senate Democrat and chairman of the banking committee, and North Dakota's Byron Dorgan, the 18th-most senior Senate Democrat and head of the panel that sets policy for his party's caucus.

Dodd's retirement after 35 years in Congress is partly attributable to disgust in his home state over a sweetheart mortgage, an amendment that opened a back door to bonuses for bailed-out bankers, and a vanity presidential run in 2008.

But the Dodd fatigue in the Nutmeg State was not allayed by lavish praise from a president who is still popular in the Northeast. Nor was it dispelled by multiple demonstrations of the senator's prestige on Capitol Hill: Among other things, the chance to pick up Ted Kennedy's mantle on health care and the deference of his colleagues on financial regulatory reform, etc.

None of the trappings of Washington power could turn things around for Dodd. The more visible he became in Congress, the worse his numbers got.

But if power should have saved anyone, it should have been Dorgan, who has been untouched by scandal since coming to Washington as a congressman in 1981.

He fits the model of Washington power translating to electoral invincibility to a tee. He hails from a small state (the third least populous with 641,000 residents); he brings home lots of bacon ($195 million in earmark requests in the last budget year); and he takes an interest in home-state issues (he is also chairman of the Committee on Indian Affairs).

Even so, polls showed that Dorgan was in serious trouble at home and might have been wiped out if the state's governor ran against him. Unlike Dodd, surveys showed Dorgan to be respected and well-liked. But voters still wanted him gone.

Dorgan, who is 67 and has held statewide office since 1969, should have been on his way to the kind of tenure we've seen from West Virginia's Robert Byrd.

Byrd, who has been in Congress longer than anyone -- six years in the House and 51 years in the Senate -- perfected the model for making power in Washington a political shield at home.

But the era of the elderly giants like Byrd or the late Strom Thurmond, has come to a close.

Two themes have dominated recent political history: a new concern for national security following the 9/11 attacks and a mounting revulsion to Washington.

Neither party has been immune from the blistering anger of voters who are sick of a dysfunctional system. Just two years ago, Democrats benefited as Barack Obama ran as an outsider against the seventh-most senior Republican in the Senate.

But the president's party appears to be paying a particularly high price this year for promising change and delivering more of the same.

Chris Stirewalt is the political editor of The Washington Examiner. He can be reached at

About The Author

Chris Stirewalt


Washington Examiner Political Editor Chris Stirewalt, who coordinates political coverage for the newspaper and in addition to writing a twice-weekly column and
regular blog posts.

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