- The money is good and the benefits are outstanding
- So why do so many senators and lawmakers say life on Capitol Hill isn't that great?
To hear Chris Christie describe it, being a United States senator must be the worst job in America.
"I would rather die than be in the United States Senate. Okay?" I would be bored to death," the New Jersey Republican governor said last weekend, explaining he simply doesn't have the temperament for the slow-moving legislative pace.
"Could you imagine me bangin' around that chamber with 99 other people? Asking for a motion on the amendment in the subcommittee? Forget it," he said. "You'd watch me just walk out and walk right in the Potomac River and drown."
He might rather be president and be seriously considering a run for the White House in 2016, but really? He'd rather die?
Christie is not alone in his abhorrence of the notoriously dysfunctional chamber -- Congress' approval rating regularly hovers in the low teens. But his sharp aversion to joining the exclusive club of 100 is seemingly at odds with the hundreds of millions of dollars candidates and their supporters are spending nationally on a barrage of ads desperately trying to gain entry.
After all, the job has perks. It pays almost $175,000 a year -- even more if a senator is elected to a leadership position. That's more than three times the median income in the U.S. Senators get a big staff and office budget and travel free on official fact-finding missions to the countries of their choosing all around the world. One largely unknown side benefit: many senators regularly are driven to and from their appointments by young staffers, which makes it easier for them to keep their busy schedules.
Best of all, whether they served for ten days or ten years, for the rest of their lives they'll be introduced at banquets as the "honorable former senator from the great state of....."
Committees, committees, committees
As good as all that sounds, Christie's distaste for the world's greatest deliberative body makes sense to one New Jersey political science professor, Ross Baker of Rutgers University. Baker is an expert on Congress and the author of the just-published book, "Is Bipartisanship Dead?"
"People who come to the Senate from positions of being chief executive tend not to do very well. It's more true for people from the private sector. Because if you're used to issuing orders and having people snap, the idea of having to consult on virtually everything and being able to do virtually nothing on your own is unbelievably frustrating," Baker told CNN. "It leads you to believe there is a legislative temperament and an executive temperament and they are pretty much incompatible."
Sen. Mark Warner, D-Virginia, is an example of a chief executive turned frustrated legislator.
Before he came to the Senate six years ago he was governor of his commonwealth and before that he made millions as an executive in the cellular industry. In his first term he routinely worked behind closed doors with Republicans in a fruitless effort to cut a big budget deficit deal. While he has repeatedly lamented the lack of accomplishments produced by the chamber, he is, nevertheless, running again.
"I'm not willing to accept the notion that somehow, in America, we' can't fix problems. My whole career in business and politics has been about how you fix things," Warner said in a recent televised debate. "Do I get frustrated what's going on in Congress? Yes, I haven't found anybody that's part of the eight percent that Congress thinks are doing a good job."
But other top senators are bowing out this year. Five Democratic committee chairman, at the height of their influence and power, are giving up their gavels this year.
"Some may have been in anticipation of a bad year for Democrats," Professor Baker said about the upcoming elections that have Republicans poised to take majority control of the Senate for the first time in 8 years. "There is nothing more fundamentally disheartening than to wield the gavel as a committee chairman to have it taken away to become just the ranking minority member."
Georgia Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss would be positioned to take over the important chairmanship of the Senate Intelligence Committee if the GOP wins the majority. But Chambliss, who worked with Warner on the bipartisan "gang of eight" deficit talks announced more than a year and a half ago he would quit the Senate.
"This is about frustration, both at a lack of leadership from the White House and at the dearth of meaningful action from Congress, especially on issues that are at the foundation of our nation's economic health," Chambliss said in his stinging departure announcement. "Sadly, I don't' see the legislative gridlock and partisan posturing improving anytime soon."
While Christie's lighthearted comments drew chuckles from his audience at an NAACP event and went viral on the web, it also tapped into broader frustrations many Americans feel about the Congress generally and the Senate in particular. The public knows that just a few bills of significance have passed in recent years and that partisan haggling over procedure and process dominate Senate action and news coverage of it.
Baker says that's unlikely to change next year regardless of which party controls the Senate "because the numerical advantage either party has is very, very small" and the legislative process is being used "strictly for electoral purposes."
"Therefore, you introduce legislation not with any realistic hope it's going to pass but rather because it has the ability to embarrass the other party, forcing the other guys to go on record on embarrassing or controversial votes," Baker said. "It's hard to get big stuff done."