Lawmakers Bring Home the Bacon on Their Way Out
When most people head into retirement, they get a gold watch, a handshake and a sheet cake. Members of Congress can get much, much more -- buildings dedicated to them, special dollops of federal aid to their constituents, a passel of pet projects.
Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.), in one of the final acts of his 38-year career in Congress, had two federal programs and a wildlife refuge named after him -- and he channeled millions in aid to South Carolina. Retiring Sen. John B. Breaux (D-La.) won a 15-year extension of an environmental law that bore his name. Rep. Dick Gephardt (D-Mo.), who is leaving the House after losing his bid for the presidency, snared $1.5 million to archive his congressional papers at the Missouri Historical Society.
And the swan songs are not over yet. Some retiring lawmakers are hoping to grab one more legislative goody when Congress meets this week in the end of its postelection session.
It is a testament to the fact that although retiring members are typically derided as lame ducks lacking legislative clout, many still wield considerable power on their way to the exits. They may even benefit from the goodwill of colleagues who want to give them a good send-off.
“If it’s a guy like John Breaux, who’s been a decent bipartisan guy, people are going to be looking for ways to help him,” said a senior aide to the House Appropriations Committee. But if a lawmaker was not well liked to begin with, the aide said, “they will look for ways to kick him on the way out the door.”
It is also a reminder that for all the partisanship that has made politics in Congress more vitriolic, Capitol Hill is still a place where personal relationships matter.
“Congress is a place of great sentimentality,” said Ross K. Baker, a Rutgers University political scientist who has also worked as a Senate aide. “It must be hard for people who think of politicians as cutthroat, but there is a lot of nostalgia.”
That’s not to say the sky is the limit for lame ducks. They still have to contend with forces such as White House objections that can line up against any measure or amendment.
That is what has kept Breaux from passing the bill he had hoped would be his swan song: one named for him that calls for combating abuse of the elderly. Breaux got interested in the issue as a member and one-time chairman of the Senate Special Committee on Aging.
He managed to get the bill through the Senate Finance Committee, and the Senate nearly passed it in October. But it was blocked by a last-minute objection from the Bush administration, which argued that it would duplicate existing programs in the Health and Human Services Department.
Breaux did manage to win another personal priority: a bill extending the Breaux Act, a 1990 law to protect and restore wetlands, through 2019.
Also pushing for last-minute action to help Louisiana is retiring Republican Rep. W.J. “Billy” Tauzin, who has proposed $1.1 billion for coastal restoration -- a big issue for his state, where erosion is damaging the shores. Tauzin failed to get the money into the year-end spending bill but will try for another route to passage this week in a water resources bill.
Former Sen. J. Bennett Johnston (D-La.), who was chairman of the Senate Energy Committee before he retired from Congress in 1997, said he had a mixed experience as he ended his political career. He felt his considerable power as chairman dwindling when he was not going to be around for much longer. On the other hand, he found it easier to get funding for parks and other home-state projects.
“I got some local things as going-away presents, which one tends to be able to get if they are not too expensive,” Johnston said. “But there’s no question, if you’re a chairman there’s a lot of power because people don’t want to cross you, and you lose that on the way out.”
This year’s final spending bill is a monument to the continuing clout of Hollings -- even if he won’t be around next year. As a senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, the South Carolina Democrat has managed every year to win significant funding for projects in his home state, and this year is no exception.
Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan budget watchdog group, identified more than $32 million earmarked for projects in South Carolina in the chapter of the bill Hollings was most involved in drafting. The bill makes South Carolina home to a federal marine research laboratory, allots $8 million for a library at the University of South Carolina and provides $20 million for a new research facility at the Medical University of South Carolina. The bill puts Hollings’ name on a scholarship program for students of oceanic and atmospheric science, on a wildlife refuge and on a program to assist small and medium-size manufacturers.
Retiring Republican Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell will be immortalized in his home state, thanks to a bill Bush has signed to designate a Nighthorse Lake in southwest Colorado.
Two retiring House members from California -- Reps. Doug Ose (R-Sacramento) and Calvin Dooley (D-Hanford) -- were able in their final weeks to finish a legislative project long in the works. Congress cleared their farm bill, which funded the promotion of fruits, nuts, vegetables and other specialty crops so important to their districts.
The last big tax bill of the year was a rewrite of corporate tax laws; it was a vehicle for some lawmakers’ last hurrahs. Sen. Don Nickles (R-Okla.) managed to close a loophole with a provision that made it harder for businesses to buy luxury SUVs and write them off as a business expense. Breaux helped secure several tax breaks important to Louisiana industries, including energy production, aquaculture, shipbuilding and forestry.
Breaux and Nickles are members of the Finance Committee, which wrote the tax bill. Its chairman, Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), paid tribute to them after the Senate passed the measure.
“Over the last couple of decades, the states of Oklahoma and Louisiana have been well represented on the Finance Committee,” he said.