Members, Moving On

Former Legislators Find Esprit Off the Hill

Posted June 12, 2009 at 4:23pm

When former Rep. John Rhodes lost his bid for re-election in 1992, the Arizona Republican remembers getting very little help moving on.

“When I was defeated, the only thing I heard from anybody was from the Architect of the Capitol, who wanted the keys to my office, and there was nothing else,— he said in a phone interview last week.

Rhodes quickly joined the U.S. Association of Former Members of Congress, a nonprofit chartered but not funded by the legislative branch, and went to work rectifying that problem. FMC sponsored its first Life After Congress program following the 1994 election cycle, advising Members on the benefits of being a former Member and nitty-gritty issues such as how to close an office and how to continue being insured. As the son of former Minority Leader John Rhodes (R-Ariz.), Rhodes himself was probably better prepared to transition back out of Congress than most, but he said Members always appreciate the help.

That program is one of many ways the group reaches out to former Members of Congress, helping them transition back into the private sector while still satisfying their desire to serve the public. The group has unique goals: to serve as an alumni association for former Members, to teach young people about Congress and to encourage them to pursue public service and to support democracy in other parts of the world.

Executive Director Pete Weichlein estimated there are about 1,000 living former Members of Congress, and nearly 600 of them pay the $200 annual dues to be a part of FMC. Among the members are former Vice President Dick Cheney, who represented Wyoming in the House from 1979 to 1989, and former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who represented part of suburban Chicago in the House from 1963 to 1969.

About 40 former Members will descend on Capitol Hill this week as part of FMC’s annual meeting. Events start today with a golf tournament at the Army Navy Country Club that will benefit the Wounded Warrior Project, a nonprofit that assists injured veterans. While former Members have been participating in a golf tournament for years, this is the second year the tournament has had a more charitable purpose. The tournament is chaired by Reps. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.) and Chet Edwards (D-Texas) and former Reps. Ken Kramer (R-Colo.) and Dennis Hertel (D-Mich.).

Tuesday morning, Rhodes and other former Members will hit the House floor to give Congress the annual 90-minute update required in the group’s charter.

Later in the day, two panels will discuss issues with the group. In the morning, a panel will discuss NATO, Afghanistan and Pakistan, while in the afternoon, a media panel will discuss upcoming elections. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, a new FMC member who left Congress in January after representing a central Illinois district for 14 years, will address the group over lunch. On Wednesday morning, they’ll hold a breakfast to recognize former Members who have passed away in the previous year.

During the Tuesday afternoon business meeting, the group will choose new officers. It’s a bit of a formality, Weichlein said, since the executive board, made up of the president, vice president, secretary, treasurer and past presidents, all move up a step. Rhodes will complete his two-year term as president, and current vice president Hertel will be promoted. Former Rep. Phil English (R-Pa.), who lost his bid for re-election in November, will replace the departing Republican on the group’s eight-member board.

FMC strives to be bipartisan in everything it does. In its premier domestic program, Congress to Campus, a Republican and a Democrat are sent to U.S. colleges that request speakers to talk to students and the surrounding community about Congress and to answer their questions. Weichlein said they send about 15 pairs to campuses each semester, and students are impressed to see how the two can disagree on issues but maintain a friendship. In addition to visiting one of the four service academies each semester, the group tries to include colleges that might otherwise have a hard time attracting top-quality speakers.

“Princeton doesn’t need my help, but a community college in Kansas might,— Weichlein explained. They’re working on expanding the program, using webcasting to make Congressional pairs available to speak to high school students.

Former Members can also stay involved around the globe. FMC formed the International Election Monitors Institute with similar groups of former legislators from Canada and the European Union. Rhodes said he has monitored two elections in the Ukraine and one in Afghanistan and hopes to head back to Afghanistan for its presidential election in August.

“You’re not a rule maker and not a rule keeper. You watch,— he said. “If you see something wrong, then at the end the monitoring team makes a report and says we saw a good clean election or we saw a really crappy election.—

FMC has a special focus on Germany, Japan, Turkey and Mexico. It organizes exchanges for current and former Members of Congress. For example, German and Turkish delegations visit the United States during election years, and American delegations visit Berlin or Ankara during off years.

“The thinking is, since nations tend to communicate on the executive branch level, we would like to have a dialogue on the legislative branch level,— allowing for both higher-level dialogue and personal connections, Weichlein said.

FMC also makes Members and former Members available to assist fledgling democracies as they try to build up a legislative branch. That fits right into their mission of public service.

Rhodes said he welcomes new members into the group and wants to reassure them that there is, despite it all, life after Congress.