Eight Reasons Why Congress Offers the Worst Job in America

Welcome to a life of mooching, meetings and trying not to get caught making out with your aides.

Eight Reasons Why Congress Offers the Worst Job in America
Scott Anderson

Imagine, in a moment of suspended disbelief, that your job pays 174 grand a year. And comes with a $1.3 million expense account. And a staff of 18 Ivy League yes-men whose sole duty is to bray loud and wide about the miracle that is you — when they're not babysitting your kids or fetching your dry cleaning, that is.

You get free travel to anywhere on the globe. A private dining room and a private gym replete with swimming pool, sauna and steam bath.

Best of all, you're only required to show up for the equivalent of four months per year.

Former congressman Tom Tancredo (R-Colorado) had this life for a decade. By the time it was over, he'd caught that affliction known to anyone who hates his job: a fear of Monday mornings. "As I drove to work, I'd get a knot in my stomach, and it would just start to grow," Tancredo says.

Here's why:

8. Think of your day as a Bataan Death March of meetings.

The meeting. It's the most nefarious act in the American workplace, an assault of trudging monologues and plans never to be fulfilled.

Yet this is your life as a legislator. Meeting. After meeting. After meeting.

Your mornings begin with committee hearings. But since most members serve on four to seven different committees, "you can't just go to one hearing and sit," says former representative Steve Bartlett (R-Texas).

After all, the line outside your office began forming at 8 a.m. There are staffers, constituents and captains of industry all wanting...meetings. Never mind the 12,000 registered lobbyists, who may suddenly lack the stamina to write a check if they can't get a sit-down.

So you knock them out in breakneck succession, with barely time to lob pleasantries and get down to business. "Everything in a congressman's life is scheduled within 15-minute increments, and oftentimes you're double-booked," says Bartlett, who subsequently became mayor of Dallas before heading a Wall Street advocacy group.

Tancredo's day would usually begin at 6 a.m., lest his commute turn into a grinding two-hour pilgrimage courtesy of the D.C. rush hour. His meetings would run for the next ten hours. If the Colorado Republican wanted to speak on the House floor, he would still be working at 11 p.m., when a slot finally opened on the schedule.

Yes, it could all be a heady experience. "Powerful people beg for your vote," says one Capitol Hill staffer. "Ego-wise, it's an orgy at the Playboy Mansion."

It can also be enriching. Tancredo warmly recalls the deluge of information available nowhere else. "Every day you learned more shit about more shit," he says. "It was like a college education every couple of weeks."

The downside is that all this activity is usually for naught.

After all, this is a job of rigorous self-interest. Passing meaningful legislation only jeopardizes your survival, since it places your vote on a tee, there to be hammered by character-assassinating ads in the next election. So rather than act today, it's always best to speak of intended heroics in distant battles to come.

That means the most common vote you'll take is to rename a post office somewhere, which amounts to 20 percent of all legislation passed. According to former senator Alan Simpson (R-Wyoming), it's now all about running out the clock. "It's simply how do you stall until you get through the next election so you don't lose seats."

7. You will attend many parties. They will blow.

Washington is a party town. Bartlett often went to four a night, 12 months a year.

Yet D.C.'s definition of "partying" hews closer to the 1870s sense of the word. You will not lose yourself on the dance floor. You will not wolf shots of pomegranate vodka and end up sharing a bong with a ventriloquist named Renaldo at 4 a.m.

What you will do is schmooze and be schmoozed at dinners, receptions and fundraisers, where the most unrefined moment will involve a woman wearing pastel out of season.

"The typical reception was about a 15-minute in-and-out," Bartlett says. "Most bartenders would prepare 'the congressional drink' — which is usually orange juice — as soon as you come in."

Yes, there's a good chance that someone will buy you a steak the size of a sub-Saharan principality. But there's also a good chance that you'll be seated next to a lobbyist for the American Coalition for Clean Coal, who will treat you to a soliloquy on the respiratory benefits of airborne toxins.

"They're not a respite," says Tancredo, who's now running for governor of Colorado. "They're usually with contributors to the party, and you're supposed to schmooze. They're not always comfortable."

Worse, these events have a way of trampling lesser egos.

Washington is often referred to as "Hollywood for ugly people." But since there are 535 members of Congress, only the most prominent get the all-hands-on-deck obsequiousness reserved for Brangelina and Clooney. If you're a freshman from Minnesota or a back-bencher from Missouri, expect to play the role of Tori Spelling.

Connie Schultz knows the drill. She's the author of ...and His Lovely Wife, a memoir of campaigning with her husband, Senator Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio). Though she may be a Pulitzer Prize-winning syndicated columnist, she's well acquainted with what's known as the "D.C. scalp stare" — the practice of looking over the head of the person with whom you're speaking, preparing to leap at first sight of someone more important entering your field of vision.

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7 comments
MelADavis
MelADavis

Last time I checked, serving an elected office is not a job or a career.  It is an honor, duty, and privilege.  Perhaps this is why Congress is so broken.  

Anse
Anse

I wonder if publicly funding campaigns--getting rid of private donations entirely--might go a long way toward reforming this stuff? 

icemanu
icemanu

As a journalist who's spent more than 20 years covering politics from school boards to international summits, all I can say is this is great stuff and dead-on. One of the first things I ask newbie candidates is if they really want to spend 40 hours a week in committee meetings, another 20 gladhandling at ghastly cocktail parties and another 30 making telephone calls to raise funds. It's also among the less than five articles I can recall that made me feel a bit of sympathy for the likes of Tancredo (I can name plenty of Democrats just as awful, BTW). Not saying I'm overly sympathetic, given all the people working two jobs for low wages in abusive conditions, but it's fair to note even Congress is something of a hellish job requiring more than a cushy three-day week (and you can imagine how much worse it is for the staff).

stevek77536
stevek77536

"Every day you learned more shit about more shit," ... I suspect this should be taken literally, even if not meant that way.  With political "geniuses" like Rove doing the teaching, we end up with what we have, Congressional approval ratings in single digits.  Bile-spewing and (secretive) begging have long since replaced public service.

roguebotanist
roguebotanist

No sympathy for Tancredo or Hutchinson.  Both were around at the height of the Iraq war and were lapdog yes men/women for the GOP powers with no meaningful bills between them. They won't be missed as politicians. 

larrybradley
larrybradley

Don't have time to read the whole thing right now, so I will assume it is a joke, a tongue-in-cheek piece; otherwise, "the most terrible job in the world" sure seems to be one that most people will do anything to hang on to. You not what the REAL worst job in the world is? It is being unemployed when you are able and willing to work, but the economy has been so screwed up by those who don't bother to show up for most of their meetings (aka Congress) that people have given up. Despair over meetings when you make $174k and many thousands, if not millions, more on the side is way different from despair over joblessness. Okay, so maybe it is a tongue-in-cheek piece. If so, thanks anyway for giving me an opening to sound off.

Anse
Anse

@larrybradley I don't know. If you're really idealistic and sincerely want to do the best for your district and your country, this sounds like a pretty awful way to go about it. 

 
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