One day in early January, Congress-woman Margaret Heckler moved glumly through her Washington office filling cardboard boxes with the mementos of 16 years in the House of Representatives. "Going over everything and finding letters from Carter and Ford and Reagan was fun, but there was something about those boxes—the finality of it," she says. "It was like a funeral." Her political death had come last November when the Massachusetts Republican lost her redistricted House seat to Barney Frank. The job possibilities that followed from Boston and Washington law firms were not, in Heckler's view, sufficiently exciting. Her problem, as it has been for hundreds who have preceded her and hundreds who will follow, is that political power in Washington is addictive. And it is painful to kick the habit—to say nothing of the habitat.

"The phone suddenly stopped ringing," Heckler, 51, recalls. "Overnight we went from being a crisis center of Washington to being the local morgue." But only hours after receiving her first substantial offer in Washington, she returned home to Wellesley, Mass. to ponder her future and the phone rang—this time directly from the White House. A few days later President Reagan announced her appointment to the Cabinet post of Secretary of Health and Human Services. "This is a new chapter," she said. "I had a sense that it wasn't all over, that the Lord had something more in store for me."

If God gets the credit, then He does seem to have a special fondness for politicians who've been cast aside by a fickle American electorate. In her new incarnation, Heckler joins a swelling band of the defeated but not departed who can't seem to shake the dust of Washington from their feet.

The lure is easy enough to understand, especially for politicians who have been forced out by the people who sent them there in the first place. Washington becomes home. And besides, it's the best job market in the country for an out-of-office politician. Opportunities abound—a judgeship here, an ambassadorship there, or just a middle-management niche somewhere in the bowels of the federal bureaucracy. And very often rejected public servants find jobs with heavenly pay scales in the private sector—chiefly in Washington's prestigious law and lobbying firms that hire out to special-interest groups. While moving through that "revolving door" between big government and big business, egos bruised by defeat at the polls can be quickly soothed with pay raises that can reach more than $100,000 a year. There are, it soon becomes obvious, other kinds of power to enjoy.

Take Frank Church, for example. He was defeated for reelection in 1980 after serving as a U.S. Senator from Idaho for 24 years, two of them as chairman of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Five months later Church took a job (and a "six-figure salary") in the Washington office of the New York law firm of Whitman & Ransom, where he represents multinational corporations that do business in foreign lands. "When the people of Idaho finally put me out to pasture, I decided to go where the grass grew tallest," explains Church, 58. "Washington is where my talents could be put to use. There is little international law in Boise."

Once a defeated pol elects to stay in Washington, there are two basic choices to make in looking for work. The more obvious—and traditional—is to pull strings with political cronies for a government job. Of course, it helps to belong to the party currently occupying the White House. Edward Derwinski, 56, a 12-term Republican Congressman from Chicago, was defeated in a primary last spring. With the help of two Secretaries of State—Haig and Schultz—Derwinski managed to find a job as counselor of the State Department, earning $67,200. Another turned-out Republican Congressman, Don Clausen of California, chatted with a couple of friends—Drew Lewis, 51, then Secretary of Transportation, and Presidential Counselor Edwin Meese III, 51—and landed a job planning airport improvement for the Federal Aviation Administration. After the rigors of Congress, Clausen, 59, finds his new $63,800-a-year job something of a relief. "On the congressional treadmill, you're accustomed to working a 16-to-18-hour day," he says. "Now it's only a 12-hour day. It feels very different, and my wife is having difficulty adjusting to the fact that I get home at 7."

But the real financial plums for ex-Congressmen are not government jobs. Lawyers and lobbyists rarely take pay cuts. They often pull down salaries in the six figures. Some of the most famous—and infamous—Congressmen of recent vintage are now practicing law in Washington. Edmund Muskie—former Senator, Democratic Vice-Presidential nominee and Secretary of State—is now, at 68, a $250,000-a-year senior partner at Chadbourne, Parke, Whiteside & Wolff. In his new job, Muskie visits the firm's offices in such faraway places as the oil-rich United Arab Emirates. Wilbur Mills, whose drunken escapades with an Argentine stripper cut short his career as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, is now, at 73, a tax attorney at Shea & Gould. Tom Railsback, an Illinois Republican defeated in a primary last spring, had been a staunch defender of strict copyright laws, especially in the field of video, while a member of the House Judiciary Committee. Now he continues this posture as Washington-based executive vice-president of the Motion Picture Association.

Birch Bayh, 55, former Senator from Indiana and two-time presidential hopeful, formed his own law firm, Bayh, Tabbert and Capehart. Last year Bayh shocked many of his old fans in Washington by lobbying for a bill that he probably would have opposed during his 18 years in the Senate. The measure would have rescued Bayh's client, Georgia-Pacific Corp., from paying millions of dollars in fines in a price-fixing case it had already lost in court. The bill failed to pass, but Bayh's support of it raised hackles among liberals. "It's not illegal or even unethical," says Jay Angoff, staff attorney for Public Citizen Congress Watch. "You just think that someone who's been in public office could do something better, more in the public interest, than just hire out to the highest bidder." Bayh denies that he has sold out his beliefs but adds a candid corollary: "The Senate voted the other day to keep their income at the same level, but it didn't say that former Senators couldn't raise their salaries."

Big business, in fact, is happy to pay high salaries to men and women of high visibility in Washington. Says Boeing Co. spokesman George Weiss: "They know people and people know them." Among Boeing's well-paid Washington boosters is Richard Ichord, 56, a former Missouri Representative and member of the House Armed Services Committee. Former Florida Senator George Smathers, 69, now lobbies for groups ranging from the American Horse Council to Gulf & Western to the government of South Africa. Smathers spent a well-publicized—and doubtless well-paid—part of 1976 trying to convince his former colleagues to buy, for Senate use, a downtown Washington building owned by one of his clients. "You can't say it's illegal but sometimes it's just sleazy," says Nancy Drabble, director of Congress Watch.

Some former Congressmen do remain loyal to the causes they espoused while in office. Gaylord Nelson, 66, an avid environmentalist during his 18 years as a Senator from Wisconsin, works as the $65,000-a-year chairman of a conservation group called the Wilderness Society. George McGovern has made himself a millionaire through lecture fees and real estate, but he also runs a group called Americans for Common Sense, which is dedicated to battling the New Right forces that helped to defeat him in 1980. For that work he takes no salary.

Other, less prominent liberals have had a harder time remaining ideologically unsullied. Before James Corman of California lost his House seat in 1980, he had spent 20 years as a classic liberal Democrat, supporting progressive taxation, welfare legislation and national health insurance. Now, at 62, he is a $180,000-a-year lobbyist for the Washington law firm of Manatt, Phelps, Rothenberg & Tunney. The firm's partners include Democratic National Committee Chairman Charles Manatt and former Democratic Senator John Tunney of California. Corman finds himself working for such corporate giants as Nissan Motor Co. and the Texas Air Corp. To many in Washington, this seems like a 180° turn. Corman denies it. "I have never taken a client who wanted me to lobby for something that was against my ideals," he says. Corman admits, however, that he isn't working for his ideals, either: "People don't hire lawyers to work on the things I worked on when I was in Congress." Concludes Corman: "When you're in public office you have the privilege of representing the public interest. When you work for a law firm, you represent your client." Counters Joan Claybrook, 45, once President Carter's National Highway Traffic Safety Administrator and now executive director of Public Citizen Inc.: "Members of Congress are paid to represent the people. That is how they get their expertise, their influence. They shouldn't be allowed to turn right around and sell it."

Yet Corman's rationale holds true even for political appointees—as Margaret Heckler quickly learned. During her years in Congress, Heckler was a leading Republican moderate. In 1982, her voting record shows, she led House Republicans in opposition to some of President Reagan's favored legislation. Now, as Reagan's Secretary of Health and Human Services, she must represent policies she once opposed. "I've shifted roles," she admits. "I will bring the experience and conditioning of my prior career, but the policies will be his policies and I will be a member of his team."

Reported by DAVID VAN BIEMA and GARRY CLIFFORD, Washington

  • Contributors:
  • Garry Clifford.