Congressman William Brodhead churned in his bed sheets. It had been a long, exhausting day and it was 4 in the morning, but Brodhead could not sleep. Earlier that night, at Ted Kennedy’s house, Brodhead, a Michigan Democrat, had dined with several colleagues and discussed the party’s chances in the 1982 elections. Now, in an introspection enforced by insomnia, Brodhead came to a painful realization: His public career was playing havoc with his personal life. He decided to retire from Congress. Later that morning, Brodhead, 41, stood at the podium in the House of Representatives and spoke from the heart. “I find that I no longer have enthusiasm for my work,” he said solemnly. “I have a strong desire for more time with my family and more quiet goals in my life. I have, therefore, decided not to seek re-election.”
Brodhead’s statement stunned the House. A hardworking and intelligent member of the prestigious Ways and Means Committee, Brodhead had, in eight years, earned much respect on Capitol Hill. Rep. Sam Gibbons rose to urge Brodhead to remain. “He is a very fine and talented member of Congress,” Gibbons told the House. “I hope it is not too late for him to reconsider.”
But it was too late. Brodhead’s decision stood: He wanted to get out before he burned out. And he was not alone in those sentiments. More than a handful of other Congressmen are quitting this year for similar reasons. Some, like Brodhead, decided that the job, which is among America’s most coveted, is also among its most thankless. “It would be wrong to the people I represent to remain in a job that has become tedious and frustrating,” said Rep. Shirley Chisholm (D-N.Y.), 57, who gave up last February. Rep. Richard Boiling (D-Mo.), 66, decided that he found large parts of his job “not particularly satisfying.” Rep. M. Caldwell Butler (R-Va.), 57, has quit, calling Congress “an unnatural existence.” His wife, June, described it more forcefully. “It’s exhausting and it’s frustrating,” she said. “You just get very tired of the hassle.”
Americans can be grateful that the U.S. Congress boasts some of the most dedicated and intelligent men and women in the nation, but voters can also be forgiven for wondering at times if a variation of Gresham’s Law does not rule Capitol Hill: More and more, competent, devoted elected officials are giving up in despair, leaving the responsibilities of lawmaking to too many mediocrities (see pages 40-41). One result is that scores of other men and women with leadership qualities resist the temptation, and even the duty, of serving in Congress. It is, they believe, simply not worth the grief.
The “hassle” that June Butler refers to is verbal shorthand for a complex collection of problems. Money: The $60,663 salary is scarcely enough to maintain residences in both the home district and in Washington. Pressure: Thousands of constituents and dozens of lobbyists and special interest groups are watching—and scheming—to see that a Congressman votes their way. Worry: A legislator has no job security; every two years he must run again, and campaign costs can exceed $150,000. Lack of privacy: The press watches him like a hawk—sometimes like a vulture—and the government demands that he file a detailed financial statement. Abuse: Rival politicians, the press and angry constituents are eager to blame representatives for everything but the weather. And, above all, Time: A Congressman can easily spend 60 hours on the job in Washington and another 20 hours in his district on weekends. “There is no time left,” says John Cavanaugh, an ex-congressman from Nebraska who retired two years ago for reasons similar to Brodhead’s. “I experienced situations where I wouldn’t see my children sometimes for three weeks.”
Politics has been an insecure existence at least since the dawn of democracy. In the last decade, however, the public and private pressures have mounted dramatically. Many older political insiders wonder why anyone in his right mind should even consider a political career nowadays. Says Clark Clifford, adviser to Democratic presidents since Harry Truman, and one of Washington’s most astute observers: “You can’t be very sensitive and run for political office or you’d have your feelings hurt all the time. The idea of going through the painstaking examination of your past life by your opponent—people don’t want to go through that.” Former California Gov. Edmund G. “Pat” Brown, Jerry’s father, agrees. “There are very few people who have the guts to run for office today,” he says. “If you’re in business, you can live your private life. You’re not out every night working. You see your family. In politics you have to give that up. You have to go out and raise money and become obligated to try and find the answers to the problems of the world. Unless you have some terrific zeal—where you feel you’re the only one who can solve the problem—you wouldn’t get into it.”
Back in 1968, Bill Brodhead possessed that zeal. “I got into politics because I was opposed to the war in Vietnam,” he recalls. “I saw politics as a way to improve the country.” In 1970, Brodhead won a seat in the Michigan legislature, and in 1974, to the U.S. Congress. A member of the “Watergate Class of 1975,” he arrived in Washington with the fervor of a Frank Capra hero. “I was interested in peace, in trying to rebuild American cities, in trying to improve educational opportunities for everybody, particularly handicapped people.”
And Brodhead did win a few battles. He sponsored a successful bill to create subsidies for the adoption of foster children; he spearheaded an amendment to the windfall profits tax bill that by 1990 could earn the federal government $15 billion in revenues from Alaskan oil. Yet Brodhead soon realized that reform was not easy. He saw several of his favorite bills defeated, among them a welfare reform proposal and national health insurance. He grew disillusioned. “You find that turf battles are important,” he says sardonically. “The fight over which committee should get jurisdiction over a bill is more important than the bill itself.”
Meanwhile, Brodhead was also learning some disconcerting lessons about the power of money in politics. He observed the growth of political action committees (PACs)—special interest groups that donate campaign funds and then pressure the recipients to vote for or against certain bills. (In 1979-80, according to the Federal Election Commission, PACs donated $55.2 million to Senate and House campaigns.) One day, five men strolled into Brodhead’s office wearing buttons that read, PAC: I GAVE. The message was unmistakable. “They came in with those great big buttons to talk about a banking bill,” he says. “It was about as subtle as being hit over the head by a two-by-four. They make contributions to you and they act as if they own you. All of a sudden you have a second constituency. In addition to my constituency at home, I’ve got this money constituency in Washington.”
In the end, it was not the PACs or the pressures that forced Brodhead’s decision to return to private law practice in Michigan. It was the effect of his congressional job on his wife, Kathi, 40, and his sons, Mike, 14, and Paul, 8. “One year I was in my Detroit office on Father’s Day holding hours for my constituents…This year, it turned out to be Mother’s Day,” he remembers. “There were times when I would come home and my sons would just ignore me. I was an outsider. I had been gone so long that they learned to live without me. It was just devastating to me that I was on Capitol Hill beating my head against a brick wall accomplishing nothing, while the people that I love were trying to live without me. I was ashamed that I had ignored them.”
Now, as he departs politics, Brodhead leaves behind a few suggestions on how some of these problems might be solved. He advocates regular raises in congressional pay and expenses and a work schedule that would allow Congressmen more time in their districts. He also supports stronger campaign financing laws and greater restrictions on how much outside income a Congressman may earn. “The American people have to demand that something be done about the big money in politics,” he says. “Members of Congress must be free to vote their consciences.”
Though many of his colleagues have urged Brodhead to stay on and fight for those and other reforms, he stands by his decision to quit. “I think people ought to serve, but they shouldn’t expect to be able to do it forever,” he says. “You have to have a private life. You can’t live in the newspapers. You can’t live in the minds of your supporters. If you don’t have friendship, love and community, you don’t have anything.” And the sad reply to that is: If the best people don’t want to serve in Congress, what good is anything?