Eight Reasons Why Congress Offers the Worst Job in America

Categories: Congress, Longform

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Scott Anderson
Imagine, in a moment of suspended belief, that your job pays 174 grand a year. And comes with a $1.3 million expense account. And a staff of eighteen 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 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 fifteen-minute increments, and oftentimes you're double-booked," says Bartlett, who subsequently became mayor of Dallas before heading a Wall Street advocacy group.

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Tom Tancredo
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, twelve 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 shmooze and be shmoozed 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 fifteen-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 shmooze. 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.

"People are always looking over your shoulder as you're talking to them to see who else is coming in," she says. "It's ambitious, and it can be so impersonal."

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