Congressman Steve Kagen, an Appleton Democrat, working to the end, even if he has no office in Washington, D.C.
WASHINGTON — Steve Kagen no longer has a congressional office on Capitol Hill.
However, he still has the lapel pin that allows him to use elevators reserved for members of Congress, and he still has the card that allows him to vote in the House of Representatives.
And he still has a sense of humor that allows him to cope with what some might perceive as the indignities of the transition from member of Congress to former member.
“I have no office right now, so I couldn’t meet you in my office,” Kagen said during a recent interview above the clang of silverware, the clink of glasses and the chatter of colleagues at nearby tables in the House members’ dining room. “My staff has nowhere to congregate to do their work.”
Kagen recalled having to assemble staff in an office building corridor to discuss the House agenda and his schedule. He shut down his office, in Room 1232 of the Russell Longworth Building, on Nov. 23 so it can be readied for one of the 96 new members — 87 Republicans and nine Democrats — who will be sworn in on Jan. 5. He now has a cubicle in a basement cafeteria of the Rayburn Building.
Kagen, D-Appleton, is a lame-duck member of a lame-duck Congress, one of scores of House lawmakers who are departing by choice or by dint of voter rejection on Nov. 2. Kagen is in the latter class.
Voters chose to replace him with former Kaukauna roofing contractor Reid Ribble, a Republican.
Friday, the expected adjournment of the 111th Congress, will be Kagen’s final day at work, though he officially remains a member until the new Congress is sworn in on Jan. 5. He uses retiring Wisconsin colleague Dave Obey’s committee office in the Capitol to make a call or use a desk.
A new experience
This transition thing is all new to the doctor-turned-politician who is looking to return to his allergy and immunology practice after having spent four years in Congress.
“This is my first time leaving office,” he deadpanned. “I haven’t stopped working for the people of northeast Wisconsin. People back home don’t care if I got an office or not. They just want results.”
He’s not likely to get much in the way of results from the recent legislation he introduced that would block the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Renard Isle Causeway project. He acknowledges that the bill is symbolic at best.
So how does one manage without an office?
“You got to scramble,” he said. “You got to be a juggler, multitasking. It just takes a little longer to get the work done. It also means we have to have our ears everywhere to find out what’s going on.”
In that respect, there was angst over unemployment benefits about to run out and tax cuts set to expire. He voted for a House bill to extend the cuts for middle-class families.
There was food safety legislation and a child nutrition bill to be voted on. And, from a more parochial perspective, a shipbuilding contract to continue supporting on behalf of Marinette Marine. He voted for a government spending bill that includes the Littoral Combat Ship funding.
There was no trace of bitterness in Kagen’s voice. He viewed his defeat as more of a consequence of the national political tide against President Barack Obama than as a referendum on his stint in Washington.
Kagen maintained that Obama faced a daunting task and that “history will show that he has guided our economy back from the brink of destruction, and we are now moving in a positive direction. We have a recovery. It’s moving a lot slower than people would like, and that’s where (voters) were sending a message: They didn’t like the pace of recovery.”
Proud of his record
Kagen said he was proud of his accomplishments in four years, such as helping to preserve Wisconsin paper industry jobs by fighting against China’s unfair trade practices, supporting Marinette Marine’s bid to build a new class of Navy combat ships and securing funding for veterans’ projects like a new outpatient surgical center.
“Already, the mayor of Green Bay is having ribbon-cutting after ribbon-cutting for economic development around the new VA center,” Kagen said. “It’ll have a huge footprint and bring in millions of dollars of revenue to the entire county and the city of Green Bay.”
The 61-year-old Democrat also spoke proudly of his work on health care reform. He said he was able to get eight of 10 recommendations from a health care advisory panel in his district inserted into the bill that became law.
Ironically, the health care legislation was a primary source of the voter anger that shoved Kagen and dozens of other Democrats out of office, resulting in a new Republican House majority.
Kagen also cited his push to protect Americans on Main Street from the “gamblers and speculators on Wall Street.”
“I took on that fight,” he said. “I stood up to some very powerful corporations. I think that’s a battle that’s going to continue, and I think that’s a challenge for my successor.”
Making the transition
Kagen said he has spoken to Ribble and has instructed his own staff to transfer constituent cases to Ribble’s team.
For lawmakers leaving Capitol Hill because they lost an election, making the transition often means first coming to grips with defeat.
Then, there is a stream of decisions to make, both personal and professional. Decisions about one’s future, whether to stay in Washington or return home, whether to give up politics or begin building a new campaign. There are questions about health care insurance, when will the final paycheck arrive.
To help these departing members cope with the fears, the stress and the uncertainties surrounding life after Congress, the Association of Former Members of Congress provides workshops and resources.
“It’s an incredibly busy time,” said Peter Weichlein, executive director of the nonprofit group whose president is Dennis Hertel, a former Democratic congressman from Michigan. “In addition to being full-time legislators, they’re shutting down a congressional office, and a congressional office can be like a small business.”
It is a “hard reality,” Weichlein said, especially having to let go of loyal staffers.
“I hear over and over the concerns for staff,” he added, “the eight, 10, 15 employees who at one point or another are out of a job.”
And because of the change in the House majority, many departing Democrats’ aides may find the job pickings on the Hill to be very slim.
The former members association conducted a seminar Monday for the new crop of former members. Weichlein said about 50 House members participated. While Kagen wasn’t among them, his wife, Gayle, was, according to an aide.
‘Doctor at heart’
For Kagen, life after Congress means a return to his life before Congress and a continuation of public service, though he has yet to decide in what role.
“I’m still a doctor at heart,” he said. “I will practice medicine, and I will continue to serve people of northeast Wisconsin in every capacity possible.”
Kagen hasn’t ruled out making another run at Congress.
“I wouldn’t rule out any possibility,” he said. “It’s not up to me. I have a family that needs me. It’s really up to the voters.”
During this lame-duck session, the congressman is taking the time to do some of the things he said he seldom took time for in the past, such as sitting for lunch in the members’ dining room instead of grabbing a sandwich on the go. He also got a view of the Capitol from a tourist’s perspective.
“I’ve been kind of busy here for the past four years, and I never had a tour of the Capitol until two days ago,” Kagen said. “So two of my staff members took me on a very meaningful tour, and I got to hear and see what everybody else who’s visiting here gets to hear and see.”
In addition to praising the work of his staff, Kagen lauded the support from his wife for both his medical practice and his political career. He said she made many personal sacrifices as the wife of a congressman and became a public servant in her own right, pushing to establish a United Way information line for veterans.
As he reflected on the past four years, Kagen expressed awe over the devotion to public service he saw in many members on Capitol Hill. He said he will miss the routine of getting up at 6:30 or 7 a.m. and returning 12 to 14 hours later to his apartment, where he and fellow members would discuss one another’s day.
Still, there was a hint of frustration at the partisan politics that tends to block progress on so many issues.
“It has been a tremendous experience, and I don’t think public service in my lifetime is over,” Kagen said. “I do think I will get a lot more done in these next two years as an outsider than the House will.”
Larry Bivins Post-Crescent Washington bureau
Larry Bivins: 202-906-8105 or [email protected]