"I would say it's a more divisive environment today," says McMillen, 60, who remains active in Democratic politics.

Former colleagues from both parties say Congress has grown more polarized since they served. Byron and Bentley, who served when Republican President Ronald Reagan and Democratic House Speaker Tip O'Neill were able to hammer out budget deals, have watched the current budget impasse with dismay.

With only days left in the congressional session, lawmakers voted this week on a tax deal that delayed but did not cancel the automatic spending cuts known as the sequester.

"There's no earthly reason in my mind that Congress shouldn't get their work done," Byron says. "And they don't."

Bentley, 89, says that "we cannot keep overspending as we have been — but you cannot be totally rigid on issue after issue after issue and expect to get anything done."

"People have forgotten that successful politics results from the art of compromise," she says. "And it ain't there. … [House Democratic Whip] Steny Hoyer and I could sit down tonight and hammer out an agreement. We might want to chop each other's heads off while doing it, but we'd get it done."

McMillen says lawmakers today don't seem to be enjoying themselves as much as they did when he was in the House.

"It's become very peripatetic and frenetic and you're running all the time," he says. "One of the things that I always felt was difficult was just taking the time to really study the issues and to really be contemplative. The job is not a contemplative job."

McMillen, who lost to Gilchrest when redistricting forced them into the same district, says he has been approached from time to time about running again. He says he has never sincerely considered it.

"I tell people that I would love to go back and run for the NBA," he says. "The pay is a lot better."

Former members of Congress receive pensions based on the length of their service. They enjoy parking privileges at the Capitol, retain access to the chambers in which they served and can join the gym.

A majority also join the U.S. Association of Former Members of Congress. Morella is president of the 600-member association, which organizes campus visits, overseas trips, briefings on issues and other programs.

"When people leave Congress, obviously they have a lot of memories, a lot of history of what they have accomplished, what they didn't have a chance to accomplish, their understanding of it, and it's hard to just make that clean break and forget about it," she says.

The association works to promote civility in Washington. Morella says all of its activities are bipartisan. For visits to colleges, for example, the association sends members in pairs: one from each party.

"You have never seen such camaraderie between Republicans and Democrats as when they're not in Congress," Morella says.

matthew.brown@baltsun.com

twitter.com/matthewhaybrown

  • Text NEWS to 70701 to get Baltimore Sun local news text alerts