Congressman Returning After 33 Years Says Congress Works And Cooperates Less Now

U.S. Congressman Rick Nolan of Minnesota returned to Congress after more than 30 years away. He talks to Robert Siegel about what's changed.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. When President Obama speaks this evening, there will be one member of Congress sitting in the audience whose last chance to be there for the State of the Union address was January 23rd, 1980. That was for President Jimmy Carter's final State of the Union address. High on the president's list of concerns then was a couple of countries that presidents still talk about.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED SPEECH)

PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER: At this time in Iran, 50 Americans are still held captive, innocent victims of terrorism and anarchy. Also at this moment, massive Soviet troops are attempting to subjugate the fiercely independent and deeply religious people of Afghanistan.

SIEGEL: Back in 1980, Rick Nolan was a three-term Democratic congressman from Minnesota. Later that year, at age 37, he chose not to seek reelection, went back home and into business and said goodbye to Congress - that is, until this year. In November, he ran and won. We spoke in his new digs at the Rayburn House office building. Unlike other newcomers with offices on the higher floors, his is comfortably sited on the second floor.

REPRESENTATIVE RICK NOLAN: I retain my seniority. Out of 80 new members of Congress, I'm the only one in one of these nice Rayburn offices. And I remember going in an office selection and Michele Bachmann looking at me and saying, how come you're picking an office ahead of me? Well, I get to keep my seniority, which is, you know, has its advantages. I mean, I'm going back on the agriculture committee.

I'll be able to retain my seniority. I don't know that I'll be a ranking member, but I'll be pretty darn close to it. And should the Congress change control in the next election contest, I could be chairing a subcommittee, where much of the work of the Congress is done, in the subcommittees.

SIEGEL: Rick Nolan is a liberal Democrat. He was part of the famous Watergate class in the House, the wave of Democrats who were elected in 1974. Back in 1980, he backed Senator Edward Kennedy's challenge to Jimmy Carter's re-nomination. How different is the House of today from the House he served in from 1975 to 1981? Nolan says there are two big differences.

NOLAN: One is that the Congress no longer works in the same number of hours and the same manner that it once did. My first term of service, we worked 48 out of the 52 weeks. If you look at the schedule for the coming year, Congress is scheduled to work 32 out of the 52 weeks. Secondly, most of our weeks were four and five-day weeks and they were all day long.

Now, a day is defined quite differently. On Tuesday or Monday, you go in at 6:00 in the evening is when you have your votes scheduled. What you don't finish up on that evening, you finish up the next day and the following morning at best.

SIEGEL: So the job you had 30 years ago in Congress was a full-time job.

NOLAN: Indeed, it was. We were meeting in committees every day, getting to know one another and in the process, developing a measure of respect for one another and in the process, learning where the opportunities for cooperation, collaboration existed. Every bill that I passed, I had a Republican partner. I put together a presidential commission on world hunger.

Ben Gilman, Republican from New York, was my partner. I put together some important railroad abandonment legislation to secure those branch lines that feed the main lines. Republican Frank Skubitz from Kansas was my partner. So we worked four and five days a week. If I had my way right now, we would be meeting four and five days a week.

You can't run a country that way. You can't run a business that way. It just doesn't work.

SIEGEL: There aren't many House members left from Rick Nolan's first go around on Capitol Hill. One of them, Democrat John Dingle of Michigan, is the dean of the House. He was elected in 1955. I asked Nolan about some of the old timers and he told me a story from out of the 1970s.

NOLAN: So I had just gotten elected and one of the editors of our newspaper had promoted a big wildlife refuge back in the district and the congressman that I replaced had been a champion of it and I was supportive of it, too. So I get elected. I haven't even been sworn in and the president announced it's not gonna go forward and he's not gonna fund it.

And so, you know, I don't know what to do and we're out here for an orientation. So I go to see the chairman of the interior committee and I'll tell you who that was in a minute here. And I said, do you have any ideas for me? And he said, son, come and see me tomorrow. So I came back to see him the next day and he said put out a press release, the big stone wildlife project is going to be fully funded, it's going forward.

And so, you know, like the youngster, new to the process, you know, I kind of looked askance and I said, gee, Mr. Chairman, I mean, like, the president of the United States says it's not going to be funded, it's not gonna go forward. He says, let me tell you something, son. He said, president's come and go around this town. He said, old dogs like me, he says, we've been here forever.

We're gonna be here forever. The bureaucracy listens to guys like me. So I said, are you sure, Mr. Chairman? He said, absolutely, put out the press release. So I put it out and sure enough, the project was fully funded. And that was John Dingle and that was 38 years ago. Like he said, he's still here and he's the ranking member on that committee and a lot of presidents have come and gone.

SIEGEL: Minnesota Congressman Rick Nolan who came, went and came back to Congress after 32 years. He's now 69 and he plans to be there tonight for the State of the Union address for the first time since 1980.

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