Poor Poor Pitiful “Player”

One of the hardy perennials of Beltway journalism is reporting the self-pity of Members of Congress. They work too hard; they can’t get anything done; they have to travel all the time; they have to raise money all the time; they have to deal with constituents all the time; and for the small minority of House members who represent competitive districts, they have to run for re-election all the time.

I’m not entirely cynical about these complaints. Having once been a congressional staffer, I do know the lives of Members are not remotely as glamorous or remunerative as an awful lot of people imagine, and most are not the corrupt scoundrels they are reputed to be, either. But having once been a congressional staffer, I also know Members have it a lot better than the congressional staffers who do the majority of that tiresome work, with less pay and a whole lot less glory.

So it was with that background that I read Jonathan Allen’s Politico piece on the current grousing of Members, which begins with the sad plight of Rep. Dan Boren (D-OK), who has announced he is retiring at the end of this term:

Take Rep. Dan Boren, an Oklahoma Democrat now in his fourth term. In the old days, the moderate Blue Dog would have been a sure bet to bide his time in Congress, win reelection by serving up earmarks to his constituents and, after a couple of decades, grab the prized gavel of the Armed Services Committee….

“If you go through all the things you have to do to get elected and you feel at the end of the day, you’re not pushing the ball forward, it’s time to go do something else,” he said in a telephone interview as he ate yet another in a long string of lunches at the T.G.I. Friday’s in Terminal C of the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport.

“I’m used to being a player,” Boren said, fondly remembering his days in the state Legislature as he lamented the dim prospects of a moderate moving up the ranks at a time when ideological purity has supplanted seniority as the primary factor in gaining power. “You want to get things done for your constituents. If you can’t ever become speaker or a committee chairman, why are you doing it?”

This got my attention right away, because it was news to me that House Democrats had abandoned the seniority system. Unlike Republicans, they have not imposed term limits on committee chairs, and leapfrogging the senior member remains a very rare practice. Just last year, the Wall Street Journal’s John Fund did a feature story specifically on the complaints of House Democrats that seniority trumped everything.

So considering Boren’s particular situation, I looked at the Armed Services Committee roster to see if it was true “ideological purity” ruled its ranks, making it fruitless for Boren to stick around for a few decades. The ranking Democrat is Adam Smith of WA, former chair of the New Democrat Coalition and a well-known centrist. Next up is Silvestre Reyes of TX, not a member of any formal “centrist” group, but nobody’s lefty; in 2010 he scored a 62% liberal, 38% conservative rating from National Journal. Just behind Reyes are two of Boren’s fellow Blue Dogs, Loretta Sanchez of CA and Mike McIntyre of NC. If these guys are examples of “ideological purity,” then today’s Left really is a very big tent, though not, apparently, one in which Boren feels comfortable.

You have to figure Boren’s real complaint is that he doesn’t get to be a “player” like he was in the Oklahoma legislature, cutting deals and bringing home the bacon and so forth without all that party loyalty stuff. For that he can mainly blame his Republican colleagues, who have adopted as a basic operating principle the desire that it’s better to undercut Democratic “moderates” than it is to attract their votes. But in any event, should we really lament the fact that Dan Boren doesn’t get to be a “player” any more, or that Members don’t necessarily take office expecting to stay there until they are senescent?

Didn’t take me real long to dry my tears.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.