Greener Pastures Await Retiring Members in the Congressional Afterlife

PHOTO: An American flag waves outside the United States Capitol building as Congress remains gridlocked over legislation to continue funding the federal government Sept. 29, 2013 in Washington. Win McNamee/Getty Images
An American flag waves outside the United States Capitol building as Congress remains gridlocked over legislation to continue funding the federal government Sept. 29, 2013 in Washington.

With each passing day, more members of Congress seem to be heading for the exits.

So far in this Congress, 15 members of the House have retired, a loss of a combined more than 240 years of service by the end of this year. In the Senate, seven members have announced that they’re leaving official Washington, a loss of more than 200 years.

Being a lawmaker isn't a bad job, but there are probably plenty of other things they’d rather do—namely make money and pursue their hobbies in peace.

“I think you don’t retire from something like Congress, you re-wire,” former Maryland Congresswoman and Ambassador Connie Morella told ABC News. “You pick up different things. Some of my former colleagues have gone into lobbying.”

“I feel pretty much like I’m Ms. Pro-bono,” she says with a chuckle.

Morella, who is also a professor at American University, has been busy with several gigs since leaving Congress in 2003. She's been appointed to commissions, served as an Ambassador to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and perhaps fittingly, she is the president of a sort of recovery group for former lawmakers: The U.S. Association of Former Members of Congress.

Morella, a Republican, was one of the last of a slowly dying breed of moderate lawmakers. Since leaving Congress she talks about "bipartisanship" with a wistful sigh. And she revels in the Association's role in giving current and former members an excuse to spend time with people of the opposite party.

This month has brought a spate of retirements, including several long-time lawmakers who Morella knows pretty well from her 16 years serving in the Washington, D.C. area: Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va., and Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va.

“Jim Moran—he got pretty tired of it. And Frank Wolf...Frank Wolf is going to spend his time on human rights, which he loves,” Morella suggests. “Jim Moran is going to make money.”

She’s probably not far off when it comes to Moran, who announced his retirement yesterday after being elected to 12 terms in one of the wealthiest districts in Virginia.

As a member of the House Appropriations committee, he's lucky enough to have a plum resume, a boost for people leaving Congress for greener pastures in the private sector.

For a lot of Americans, a $174,000 Congressional salary would go a long way. But members of Congress really are far from average, and some of them are either already independently wealthy, or they could be making far more in the private sector.

Moran isn't alone. It's common for former lawmakers to get snatched up by prestigious law firms, like former Sen. Jon Kyl, a Republican, and Rep. Howard Berman, who took such jobs shortly after leaving the last Congress. Or better yet, a university might offer a deanship or presidency that suits them just fine.

Others wait out their lobbying “cooling period” in a cushy job then head straight for K Street lobbying firms eager to pay them the big bucks for connections to their old colleagues.

Generally, Morella notes, many of ex-Congressmen tend to stick around Washington: "They do a lot of lobbying, or 'consulting' or whatever you want to call it."

To be sure, when members of Congress leave elected office behind, they’re saying goodbye to some of the finer things in life.

The two members in the line of presidential succession don’t get to keep their security detail, most will have to say goodbye to international trips on the taxpayer dime, exclusive White House invitations, staff at their beck and call, and of course there’s the prestige.

Several lawmakers this year are calling it quits after long careers in elected office.

Many are approaching retirement or have already blown past it and they’ll get their federal pensions based on their salary and years of service.

Besides the lifelong (and lucrative) relationships, however, there are a few things they can take with them.

For one, former House members are allowed to come back to Congress and spend time on the House floor—forever.

For lawmakers who have moved on to other – more lucrative – jobs, the perk comes in handy.

Former Rep. David Wu, who resigned in 2011 amid a sex scandal, has been spotted on the House floor several times since his resignation to see through to the finish line initiatives he worked on while in office.

And those fancy lapel pins Congressmen get in every term to make identifying them easy? They get to keep those as well (and some are still keen on wearing them around).

High demand parking on the Hill and access to the House’s members only fitness center (for a fee, of course and not including lobbyists), are among the remnants of the job that can stick around.

But for Morella, retirement from Congress is really just about sweet freedom.

“There is a sense of freedom, but there’s also maybe a little more time that you can put to doing [public service] directly rather than spending a lot of time fundraising when you’re in Congress,” she added.

Morella says she misses the friendship and the camaraderie of her House colleagues. She still goes back from time to time, hugs old colleagues in the hallway, eats in the dining areas.

But she says, the House just doesn’t look much like the place she spent 16 years in.

“I would go out and seek Democrats to get on my legislation to say ‘see this is bipartisan,’” she said.

The retirement of longtime liberal Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., is further proof, Morella says, “that it’s not the friendliest place and it’s not necessarily the place where you could work out differences.”