Congress’s Money Culture

In Washington it is often a good thing to be underestimated, or as George Bush might put it, "misunderestimated." In 1978, when John Warner was elected to the U.S. Senate from Virginia, he was known to reporters like me largely as the man who had married Elizabeth Taylor (after first wisely marrying a Mellon heiress). Warner's marriage to the movie star ended in 1982, and he seemed to drift toward a long, safe, boring career as a lawmaker who did not make too many waves.

But Warner became something else. An increasingly rare centrist in the Republican ranks, he looked for ways to overcome Washington's ever more poisonous partisan culture. He took brave stands on gun control and reached across the aisle to join the Gang of 14 to end the foolish impasse over appointing federal judges a few years back. He became a measured but respected critic of the Bush administration's handling of the Iraq War, especially the Bush team's disregard for the Geneva Conventions.

Warner, who at the age of 81 has served longer than any senator from Virginia except the late Harry Byrd, will retire next January. Last week he won the Publius Award for public service from the Center for the Study of the Presidency. David Abshire, the head of the center and Warner's comrade in arms in trying to overcome partisanship and restore civility to governance, asked me to emcee the dinner. I was struck by Warner's tone when he made a short speech. He is still a handsome man, with a shock of swept-back hair, and he still has some of the starry-eyed patriotism that led him to enlist as a seaman in the U.S. Navy at the end of World War II, when he was still a 17-old schoolboy. (He later became a Marine officer in the Korean War.) He is gracious and courtly, but also slightly melancholy about the institution he leaves behind. He noted that his 1978 Senate campaign cost $1 million, while the 2006 Senate race, in which Jim Webb edged out George Allen, cost $20 million. Senators no longer have time to get to know each other, he said, because they spend "breakfast, lunch and dinner" raising money. He was too gentlemanly to say it, at least directly, but we should not be surprised if those senators owe more to their campaign contributors than their colleagues. Warner said he is against public financing of elections, but he called for some kind of reform that will at least dent the money culture.

He did not say it, but the Senate is increasingly becoming a club of multimillionaires who can finance their own campaigns. More worrisome—to me, anyway—is the House of Representatives, the supposed "people's house." There is growing evidence that men and women are running for Congress as a stepping stone for the really cushy Washington job—as a high-paid lobbyist. Congressmen earn $170,000 a year; ex-congressmen lobbyists make three, four, five times that amount. More than half of all congressmen become lobbyists now when they retire from Congress. Some can't wait for the opportunity; Rep. Albert Wynn of Maryland announced recently that he was stepping down before the completion of his current term to take a job at a Washington law firm, where he’ll likely become a lobbyist. Warner called on the audience at the Publius dinner (many of then well-heeled lobbyists) to create a parallel organization to Abshire's Center for the Study of the Presidency: a Center for the Study of Congress. They could start by looking at a significant congressional pay raise.

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