“We can be 30 year members,” a lawmaker from New York told me two decades ago when I was sworn into Congress. He said that barring any major problem, like an illness, a scandal, or an unfavorable redistricting, we could spend three decades, if not more, in the House.
Dozens of new members of Congress have started their own legislative branch careers. Some will be 30 year members. Some will not make it past 2022. Some will be forced out of their seats, and others will use them to launch to higher office. Still others will decide to cede them voluntarily. Some will leave honorably. Some will leave in disgrace.
Two members with whom I served did not participate in the ceremonies this week, as both announced their retirements last year. They were from different parties and had distinctly different styles, but both of them offer several important lessons for the new members of Congress on how to build successful and lasting careers on Capitol Hill.
Peter King is a scrappy Republican who hails from Long Island. Our districts adjoined and, at one point, virtually inverted in redistricting. I disagreed with much of his agenda, notably his hard line on Muslims, which I felt at times encouraged xenophobia, and his exuberant public support of Donald Trump. But unlike many of his fellow party members, King often demonstrated a blazing streak of independence.
In 2012, when Hurricane Sandy devastated much of Long Island, a rabble of House Republicans opposed federal disaster assistance to New York. King did not confine his outrage to private chamber sessions of the party conference. He bellowed on any cable network that would take him, going so far as to urge donors not to contribute to Republicans. King was always willing to participate in local press conferences with Democrats when he believed it advanced the interests of the region. In a district that voted twice for Barack Obama, the appearances were not exactly political malpractice, but he did trigger some grumbling from Republicans.
King established his independence by voting against the impeachment of Bill Clinton. He survived the scorched earth strategies of Newt Gingrich, then Tea Party absolutism, then Freedom Caucus government shutdowns, and he still rose to chair the House Committee on Homeland Security. But the timing of his retirement is notable. His children and grandchildren recently moved from Long Island to North Carolina.
At a dinner that I attended with mutual friends, he complained that the unpredictability of the district made it difficult for him to book flights for visits. I do not know if that was the sole reason for his retirement, but I have a feeling that being a good grandfather was more important to him than being a good ranking member. For the new members in moderate districts, his priorities and values deserve study.
Across Long Island is a district that was, until Sunday, represented by his ideological opposite in Nita Lowey. After over 30 years in the House, and as chair of the Appropriations Committee, she could have won another term not just in Congress but as one of its most powerful members. She is a Democrat who gave up the prestige and power of Congress to devote herself to other priorities. She told a local newspaper, “I made this decision because it was good for me, my family, and the future.”
Lowey was a passionate progressive but willing to diverge from her party. She did so in 2015 when she opposed the nuclear arms deal with Iran. She also made a conscious decision not to get trapped in the bubble on the Appropriations Committee. While she was the most powerful Democrat on the panel, she kept her focus on her constituents. Lowey has taught other members, including myself, that the seduction of national attention could snatch you away from the grit of your district. You need to pay attention to potholes, to schools, and to the village mayor who needs help.
Last year before the pandemic, I traveled to Westchester to give remarks. I heard something about Lowey that every new member of Congress needs to hear about. It was that “Nita is always here for us.” She was at home in her district. There is another thing about Lowey, and this might ruffle her feathers. Behind that sweet grandmotherly exterior is a shrewd New York fighter of a politician. She could kill her adversaries with kindness and waltz them to their own firing squads if she had to.
I hope new members will note what these two ideological opposites had in common. Both were willing to break ranks as a matter of conscience rather than convenience. Both achieved national prominence without diluting their local identity. And both left on their own honorable terms.
Steve Israel represented New York in the House over eight terms and was chairman with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 2011 to 2015. He is now the director of the Institute of Politics and Global Affairs at Cornell University. You can follow his updates @RepSteveIsrael.