Is there life after Congress?
Dozens of House and Senate members -- whether booted out by voters or bowing out by choice -- have grappled with that ominous question for weeks. And who better to offer guidance -- and perhaps even identity crisis intervention -- than lawmakers who previously walked those same halls of power?
On Monday, behind closed doors in the underground U.S. Capitol Visitors Center, the Association of Former Members of Congress will provide a mix of wise counsel and tough love for this latest flock of lame ducks about to leave the legislative nest.
Should the future formers move back home or "go Washington" as many before them have done? Take time off or rush into a new venture? Launch the next campaign or swear off politics? Hustle for an administration post? A lobbying job? Start a business? Teach college? Join a think-tank?
Nearly every path the almost-exes are mulling is familiar to their predecessors, former eight-term Rep. Connie Morella, (R-Md.) told Politics Daily. There is no reason for them to waste time and peace of mind reinventing this particular wheel when collegial aid and comfort are so close at hand.
"The purpose of this session is is to say, 'Hey, we are here, we can help you," said Morella, the association vice president, who lost her race for a ninth term in 2002 after state Democrats gerrymandered her district. Now 79, she had the last laugh when President Bush sent her to Paris as ambassador to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
One departee planning to attend is 13-term Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), who announced his retirement a year ago. Now 61, he'll be staying in Washington because his wife, Leslie, travels often to New York for her banking job and their 9-year-old daughter is in school here.
Having turned down a lucrative job running a trade association in an industry for which he had little passion, Gordon said, "I realized I want to be happy, to be with people I enjoy and work with issues I care about...There is a project I have in mind and I want some former members as advisers."
How lawmakers cope as they leave Capitol Hill often hinges on whether they retired or were fired, former Rep. Lou Frey, Jr. (R-Fla.), told me. "If you walked away of your own accord, people give you a lot of credit, they call you a great American... If you ran and lost there is a perception that you didn't know it was too late to be asking, 'just give me one more term.' That is much harder to deal with."
Five-term Frey, now 75, knows that scenario well. He left a safe House seat in 1978 and promptly lost the GOP primary for governor. "It was one of the few dumb decisions I ever made." With a wife and five kids back home, he needed to earn big money fast. So he joined a prestigious law firm here, lost a U.S. Senate race two years later, and did the Washington-Florida workday/weekend commute until 1988. Then he move home for good.
The transition is much harder for career pols than those with other life experiences, noted 13-year Rep. Bill Gray (D-Pa). A lifer, he said, is "someone who started on the city council at 25, then went to the state legislature and finally to Congress before leaving at 60." They are more inclined to stay in Washington "because the opportunities for your career are in D.C. or New York, not in Waterloo, Iowa, or in Minnesota or Oklahoma.