When former Rep. Tony Coelho, D-Calif., starts his new job as an investment banker later this month, he'll be leaving Washington, he said, with a lot of fond memories and a determination "never to worry about money again."
Coelho resigned after six terms in office after news last spring of his involvement in a junk-bond deal. He will be making roughly 10 times his Capitol Hill salary when he joins the Wall Street firm of Wertheim & Schroder.In fact, he landed so firmly on his feet that several of his ex-colleagues have told him privately that they're also considering jobs in investment banking. "I'm not going to name names," Coelho told Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper. "But, sure, I've been approached by a few guys who are thinking about leaving. Look, money isn't the only motivation. But you reach a point in your life where you want to be paid a decent wage for what you do. And I think a lot of good people in Congress are getting to that point."
At a time when sex scandals could bring an end to several congressional careers, simple economics may threaten many more.
Most members of Congress could make far more money in private enterprise than they do in government. And by the next election in 1990, a combination of financial incentives could lure dozens into lucrative new professions.
High salaries are just one of the attractions. Another is the going-away present that 186 House members (64 Republicans and 122 Democrats) are currently entitled to take with them. These lawmakers - roughly one-third of the entire House - are "grandfathered" by a federal law that allows representatives who were in office on Jan. 8, 1980, to use surplus campaign money (even funds raised after 1980) for any purpose once they leave Congress.
In 1988, at least a dozen retiring members took advantage of the law. Former Rep. Gene Taylor, R-Mo., had $452,000 when he left Congress last January after eight terms in office. Taylor donated some of the money to charity, but he also wrote himself two checks for a total of $345,000. Ten current congressmen have campaign war chests containing more than $500,000. Rep. Stephen J. Solarz, D-N.Y., leads all of the competition with $1,163,063, followed by Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski, D-Ill., with $1,015,580. Other names on the leader board include: Rep. James H. Quillen, R-Tenn., with $828,580; Rep. Ronnie G. Flippo, D-Ala., with $825,696; and Rep. Matthew J. Rinaldo, R-N.J., with $766,703.
As of last June, there was a total of $39.7 million in the campaign accounts of congressmen who would be eligible to take the money and run. And that's exactly what many of them may have in mind.
The biggest reason is a bill to repeal the grandfather clause in the election law. One of its sponsors is Solarz, who's not likely to leave Congress before it passes.
Add to this the unlikelihood in the near future of anything resembling a substantial congressional raise, and next year could see a mass exodus from the House.
Republicans, who have fewer members to lose, could benefit from a large Democratic departure. And if Coelho's thinking on the subject is an accurate reflection of the mood among his fellow Democrats, it could happen. "I love Congress," Coelho said. "But the economics of staying in politics just didn't add up."