For former members, life after Congress

Connie Morella served as an ambassador in Paris. Helen Bentley became a consultant to the port of Baltimore. Wayne Gilchrest opened an environmental education center on the Eastern Shore.

Former members of Congress from Maryland, they rebounded from election losses to find new ways to continue their service. And several of them now report a kind of relief at having left the endless fundraising, the unrelenting schedule and the partisan rancor behind.

"When you take inventory, after you've been through it all, you'll find that life is quite nice," says Morella, 81, the Montgomery County Republican who spent 16 years in the House and now heads a bipartisan organization of former lawmakers.

Roscoe Bartlett joins their ranks Thursday as the next Congress is sworn in without him. The Western Maryland Republican, who lost in November to Democrat John Delaney, steps down after 20 years in the House.

Bartlett, 86, says he plans to work on his Buckeystown farm and spend time at a cabin he owns in West Virginia. In a district that was redrawn last year to favor Democrats, he says he is unlikely to run for office again.

"Roscoe will be fine," says Bentley, the Baltimore County Republican who served five terms in the House before mounting an unsuccessful bid for governor. "He still has a very fertile mind and I'm sure he has many new ideas."

Some leave Washington on their own terms. Paul Sarbanes retired in 2006 as the state's longest-serving U.S. senator. Kweisi Mfume stepped down to lead the NAACP. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. was elected governor.

But more often, Maryland lawmakers have returned home sooner than they planned. Morella, a moderate Republican who lost to Democratic challenger Chris Van Hollen in 2002 after their district was redrawn, recalls sitting in her office on the day after the election, writing thank-you notes and packing up papers.

"Obviously," she says, she checked the precinct-level returns to confirm that she would have won in the district as previously drawn.

"So that was a nice feeling," she says, and then laughs. "Well, actually, I don't know how nice it was."

Members speak of missing their colleagues, their staffs and the opportunity to affect national policy on the issues that matter to them.

The change worked out for Morella: President George W. Bush appointed her the U.S. ambassador to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and she moved to Europe. She jokes that she went from Parris Glendening to Paris, France.

Since returning in 2007, Morella has been a resident fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and ambassador-in-residence at American University in Washington.

Others have found new ways to serve. Beverly Byron, the seven-term House member from Western Maryland who lost the Democratic primary in 1992, was appointed by President George H.W. Bush to the 1993 BRAC commission, which recommended military base realignment and closures to Congress.

Byron, 80, describes the work, for which she visited installations across the country, as "probably the hardest thing I've ever done." She also chaired the Board of Visitors at the Naval Academy, helped to build the Air Force Memorial in Arlington, Va., and served on several corporate boards.

"A lot of people think when you lose an election you died and disappeared," she says. "I still run into people in Frederick or Washington County or Montgomery County who say, 'Oh? Oh!'

"Well, I'm around. I'm still here."

Tom McMillen, the former University of Maryland, Olympic and NBA basketball star who served in the House from 1987 to 1993, was appointed by President Bill Clinton to chair the President's Council on Physical Fitness.

In 2010, McMillen helped found No Labels, a group of Democrats, Republicans and independents that "supports reforms, leaders and legislation that will help fix America's broken government and break the stranglehold that the extremes currently have on our political process."

"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.