News Article

Congress retirees echo citizens’ criticisms
May 4, 2024


By: Darrell Berkheimer

During recent interviews, when 12 retiring members were asked to describe our U.S. Congress with one word, three said dysfunctional, two said chaotic, and one said broken. Other answers included challenging and difficult.

Six of them also cited their concerns over the potential corrupting effects of too much money coming from special interest groups.

Each of the 12 was interviewed one at a time separately from the others by The New York Times video journalist Amanda Su. And their answers echoed various concerns that we U.S. citizens either say or hear almost every day.

The group included 10 representatives and two senators. Three representatives are from California – Anna Eshoo, Tony Cardenas and Grace Napolitano – all Democrats. And two are from Colorado – Doug Lamborn and Ken Buck – both Republicans.

The other five representatives are Larry Bucshon (R-IN), Dan Kildee (D-MI), Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), John Sarbanes (D-MD) and Derek Kilmer (D-WA). And the two senators are Benjamin Cardin of Maryland and Thomas Carper of Delaware, both Democrats.

Sen. Cardin bluntly stated that “Citizens United was a horrible decision by the Supreme Court that held corporations had the rights as individuals to make contributions to our campaigns without really knowing who was contributing those dollars. We need campaign finance reform,” he added.

Rep. Kilmer said, “I think there’s too much money in our political system. I have been a big supporter of campaign finance reform,” he added.

Although Rep. Lamborn and a couple others noted Congress is not corrupt, Rep. Buck said big corporations and special interest groups give a “tsunami of money.” And Rep. Sarbanes said that “special interests money is a form of corruption.”

Rep. Cardenas said, “Both Democrats and Republicans, by and large, they’re just trying to do what we believe we need to do for our districts and constituents.” But he also remarked that the latest Congress has been the “most unproductive Congress in United States history.”

Rep. Kilmer explained that too many Congress members apparently are more worried about getting re-elected than they are about doing what’s right for the nation.

He said, “The number of times over the course of the 11 plus years that I’ve heard one of my colleagues say, ‘You know I agree with you on that, but I could never vote that way because of my fear of a primary’ is concerning.”

All of the retirees were asked “How do you fix Congress?”

Reps. Eshoo and Bucshon both said the American People have to fix Congress. And Rep. Lamborn added, “You have to fix it at the root.”

Rep. Killmer recalled, “When I became a member of Congress, I was conscious of the fact that I was joining an organization that, according to recent polling, is less popular than head lice, colonoscopies and the rock band Nickleback. And so a lot of the time that I’ve spent here has been trying to figure out, what do you do?”

But it was Killmer who provided a bit of optimism for the future.

At Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s request he served for four years as chairman of the Select Committee on Modernization of Congress. The committee included six Democrats and six Republicans.

“We were nicknamed the Fix Congress Committee,” he said.

He noted the committee “tried to propose reforms to make Congress work better for the American people – everything from looking at how Congress can do a better job of recruiting and retaining and have more diverse staff, and how Congress uses technology – even looking at some tricky issues, like, how do you have a more civil and collaborative institution.”

During the committee’s hearings, he reported they invited a political scientist, management consultant, organizational psychologist, a marriage counselor, and arranged time with a football coach “who took over a team that had a notoriously corrosive culture and turned it into a winner.”

He reported that meeting with the football coach prompted an end to separate Democrat and Republican orientations for the new members. “And this last year, the orientation process actually involved Democrats and Republicans going through orientation together,” he said.

Kilmer said the committee passed 202 recommendations. And he added that he believes, “over time, you’re going to see some positive change within the institution as a consequence of that work.”

I hope those recommendations included legislation to overturn Citizens United, public financing of federal election campaigns, and eliminating the Electoral College.


In my last commentary of two weeks ago, I named the wrong actor as the star in the movie “Cool Hand Luke.” Paul Newman was the star in that movie and not Steve McQueen. I guess it’s not too surprising that the two were mixed in my memory, since both were among our most famous blue-eyed actors.