Longform

Eight Reasons Why Congress Offers the Worst Job in America

Page 4 of 4

"The most serious threats they could muster is that you were going to ruin your career in this place," he says. "People there, that's the most enticing thing to them. I'd tell him, 'I don't want a career in this place. I don't even like this place.'"

Then there's the case of Congressman Vance McAllister (R-Louisiana). Last month, he was working late in his district office. This afforded him the opportunity to engage in a brief but festive makeout session with aide Melissa Peacock.

Problem No. 1: McAllister had appeared in campaign commercials with his wife and five children, promising to "defend our Christian way of life." (Most likely by renaming post offices after biblical greats.)

Problem No. 2: Ms. Peacock was married to someone other than Vance McAllister.

Problem No. 3: McAllister's amorous lip wrestling was caught on security tape. And leaked to a newspaper. Allegedly by someone on his own staff.

This Judas environment is to be expected. When an entire enterprise is built on avoiding accomplishment, backstabbing and palace intrigue become the sport of the realm.

DeConcini recently visited a Republican friend in Congress. "He told me how terrible it was," he says. "He said it was just awful, even in his own caucus. There's a gotcha feeling."

He then visited with a liberal Democrat. "He told me the same thing about the Democrats: 'I gotta have my way, and I gotta show that I'm tough.'"

But since everyone in Washington is busy being so not Washington, the toxicity of the job is always someone else's fault. Yes, crowing about "personal responsibility" plays before the cameras — yet only amateurs dare practice it.

1. The least among you will get the most attention.

"Even members of Congress hate Congress," says an aide. "It's just that they each believe themselves to be the exception to the rule. Congress is not a team with a collective identity. It's a collection of individuals guided almost exclusively by ruthless self-interest."

In one sense, "Congress is a microcosm of the country," says former representative Bartlett. "There's going to be 15 to 20 percent who do nothing, 15 to 20 percent who do everything, and the rest in between."

The problem is that those who do nothing are celebrated the most.

To be a fixture of the green room requires special bombast. You'll need tales of villainy. High-decibel outrage. A prevailing sense of victimhood. If you can't do it with a straight face, forget about making Sean Hannity's guest list.

The same skills apply to courting donors. "One of the ways you raise money is by appearing to be very adamant and unforgiving," says Bob Graham. "The more strident you are, the more likely you are to be successful in the financial returns."

Yet ceaseless shrieking, as you may have guessed, can make you deeply unpopular with colleagues. They may name a post office after your ex-wife.

"A successful member of Congress is not going to talk like Rush Limbaugh, blasting away," says Bartlett. "There are some members who do, but they're not going to be successful. If you're attacking all the time, maybe you incite the crowd, but not many members are going to vote with you."

Yet as Tancredo tells it, a good chunk of Congress is perfectly happy being hostile to success — as long as they can moonlight as TV pundits. You still get the private sauna, the small army of supplicants, and powerful people gathering outside your door, waiting to bathe you in flattery and tribute.

"That was the most aggravating thing, looking around and seeing so many people who just wanted to be in Congress," Tancredo says. "You got your paycheck. You got your perks. What the hell? It's better than driving a cab."

KEEP NEW TIMES BROWARD-PALM BEACH FREE... Since we started New Times Broward-Palm Beach, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of South Florida, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Pete Kotz