Dirty Money, Dysfunction and Disappointment: Retiring Members Dish on the Congress They Leave Behind

Jonathan Karl sits down with four members be returning for the 112th Congress.

December 21, 2010, 12:55 PM

Dec. 23, 2010 -- In an ABC News exclusive interview, four retiring representatives sat down with senior political correspondent Jonathan Karl for a candid look at their time in the U.S. Congress.

Although the panel of represented a wide range of political views and years on Capitol Hill, the two Democrats and two Republicans, all defeated in their bids for re-election last November, found common ground:

All were disappointed, for example, by the vitriolic partisanship, which created what one member called "the most dysfunctional Congress'' in his entire life. Rep. Zach Wamp, R-Tenn., who lost his gubernatorial primary bid, had some strong last words about the state of Congress as he sees it.

"Congress is more dysfunctional today than when I got here 16 years ago, and probably more dysfunctional than at any time in the 53 years I've been alive," Wamp told Karl. "We're not passing budgets. We're not moving appropriations bills. We're not blocking and tackling, because the division is so great."

Wamp said his greatest overall disappointment had been watching the erosion of the unity formed in the aftermath of 9/11.

Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Texas, who lost to Republican Bill Flores, echoed Wamp's worry over the increasing divide among Republicans and Democrats.

"I think that there's more partisanship today than I've seen in the 20 years I've been in Congress," Edwards said. "I think the partisanship might get uglier before the American people finally blame one party or the other, and express their views at the ballot box."

Rep. Carol Shea-Porter, D-N.H., who was defeated by Republican Frank Guinta, joked that even her social worker background couldn't prepare her for the challenges and personalities she faced during her time on the Hill.

" I thought, well, I have pretty good people skills," she said. "Well, it's run up against a wall, a wall of people refusing to even sit down and start to talk about an issue."

Another commonality that emerged among the retiring members centered on the influx of Tea Partiers in the 112th Congress. All retiring members expressed reservations about the new Congress members' ability to work together, fearing the surge of conservative, hard-line candidates would will further divide an already deeply partisan legislature.

Division Wrought by New Tea Partiers

Rep. Mike Castle, R-Del., who was taken out in his primary by Tea Party favorite Christine O'Donnell, expresed alarm at the division the movement had caused within his own party.

"The Tea Party movement really is quite a bit different than the old Republican conservative movementl, " Castle said. "They're more than willing to take out Republicans, call us Republicans in name only, or whatever it may be. It was one thing when you were dealing with Democrats and Republicans. Now you're dealing with divisions within your own party."

Castle, a known centrist, also said that working with the other party -- the Democrats -- once seen as the cornerstone of a functioning democracy, has become a punishable offense.

"I mean, I know I suffered in my primary defeat [because] I had supported some Democratic legislation, supported the president from time to time. And that was treated as a great sin," Castle told ABC News.

Edwards expressed chagrin over the loss of such centrists as Castle. "A parliamentary government can work without a lot of bridge builders in the middle. I'm not sure our system of checks and balances will work as well without those centrists."

All four members said they felt somewhat brutalized by the current political climate, which they blame on the increasing influence of special interest money and the "stove piping" of news.

Shea-Porter said watching the growing influence of special interest money had been her biggest disappointment, calling it "awful for democracy."

"I think it's strangling us," she said. "They're in the halls of Congress everywhere, and it means, for example, that you sit on a committee and you say something about concern about Chinese influence or something, you don't even know if in the next election, somehow or another, they manage to send some money to some group that now doesn't even have to say where they got it."

Impact of Supreme Court Ruling on Campaign Finances

Edwards agreed, pointing to the Supreme Court ruling on campaign finance as a major game changer in the way campaigns and Congress run. Edwards said the ruling left lawmakers worrying about more than their constituents.

"In the future, you're going to have to think before you cast a vote against an individual drug company. They can run a $2 million television campaign against you in central Texas or in Delaware, and take you out under the guise of being something they're not," Edwards said. "Congress has to find a solution to that within the limits of the new Supreme Court decision."

Each member made a point to emphasize the bipartisan work they had taken part in during their time in Congress. However, each pointed out that the more cooperative interaction among members doesn't hit the media radar as much as the conflicts.

Shea-Porter said the media focused too much on the negativity in Congress.

"I have listened to people on television say things like, 'Well, everybody's on the take in Washington,' as if that's a given fact. I think it just makes people more cynical about the whole process," Shea-Porter said.

Edwards blamed a misinformed public. "I think people are getting their news from stovepipe sources of information -- where people are basically getting the news they want to hear. Whether it's Fox on the right or MSNBC on the left, it's making it hard for centrist Democrats. It's making it hard to elect centrists, who I think are critical to the functioning of our checks and balances form of democracy."

Castle, who complained that conservative talking heads such as Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, misrepresented him during his primary campaign, echoed Edwards' complaints, saying, "People are listening to what they want to listen to, and not hearing any other point of view at all. That, I think, is a huge problem affecting politics in America today."

All agreed that despite the challenges and setbacks they have endured throughout their years in Congress, and most recently, in their failed attempts at re-election, there is life after Congress. Or as one put it, at least a nice, long break.

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