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Congress is facing a triple whammy of historic forces that could bring one of the largest shake-ups on Capitol Hill in many years.

Some lawmakers will be tempted to resign next year because once-a-decade reapportionment will redesign dozens of House districts. Rather than take a chance with a new electorate, some incumbents are expected to opt for graceful retirement.Further prompting members to voluntarily move to the exit is the fact that this is the oldest Congress in decades. The average age of House members is nearly 53 and more than one-tenth of them are over 65.

The last time Congress was this gray was 1956 and two years later above-average numbers decided to retire.

Finally, this is the last chance for 165 veteran members of Congress to convert for personal use a total of $41 million in campaign funds. The so-called "golden parachute" is provided in a grandfather clause to a campaign finance law that phases out in 1993.

"A higher percentage of retirements seems likely," concluded James Thurber, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University.

Thurber said that an additional reason more House members are likely to retire is that so many of them have been in office a very long time.

"The probability of retirement increases as seniority increases,' " he said. "Many of these people are getting real tired of always having to hustle for (campaign) money. 'It ain't fun anymore' has gotten to be a common remark."

The primary reason Congress is becoming so elderly and so seniority-laden is that turnover is at an all-time low. More than 95 percent of the incumbents seeking re-election in the House have been returned to office in every election since 1982.

At the same time, members of Congress have become less likely to retire. During the 1970s, an average of nearly 42 members of the House voluntarily stepped down each election.

But that average retirement rate per election dropped to about 31 during the 1980s. The highest retirement rate for the last decade occurred in 1982, when 40 House incumbents stepped down. This was at least partially due to reapportionment.

Historically, Congress faces above-average retirement rates during a year that ends in "2." This is usually the year that new House district lines are drawn, based on the U.S. Census.

The 1990 Census count will cause 19 House seats to change hands. In losing states, there will be 19 forced retirements.

But reapportionment is also potentially disruptive in growing states. To make room for the new districts, old House lines must be redrawn giving a different profile to an incumbent's electorate.

"Redistricting could certainly contribute to the retirements," said veteran Rep. Tom Bevill, D-Ala. "Some of my colleagues, I understand, are having problems with the new lines. That's what they are telling me."

What is a sore point with many members of Congress is the golden parachute effect.

"I don't know one single congressman who has told me he would be influenced by those campaign funds. It is certainly nothing to me," said Bevill, who is 70 years old and has $566,000 in unused campaign cash. He vows he will seek re-election next year.

The average member of Congress who is 65 or older had an average of $211,800 in unexpended campaign cash in bank accounts at the end of 1990. But the size of these accounts vary substantially.

Rep. Jamie Whitten, D-Miss., is the House's most senior member. The 81-year-old representative has $436,000 in untapped cash. Rep. James Quillen, a 75-year-old Republican from Tennessee, has $1.04 million.

These men, like most of the senior members of the House, say they have no immediate plans for retirement and have no intention of ever converting their campaign coffers for personal use.

"I think it is a very cynical attitude to believe that Congress members will convert this money to personal use." said Laura Nichols, spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "At this point in the election cycle, we have the fewest number of declared retirements that we have had in a long time."

But other observers are confident that untapped cash will be an incentive for many aging and redistricted incumbents to take retirement.

"The money factor is not unsubstantial, I really believe this," said Charles Lewis, executive director of the Center for Public Integrity in Washington.

Lewis' group has conducted research into Congress' golden parachute and the size of individual incumbent's campaign war chests.

"There are probably a large number who are planning on leaving, but not announcing this until the very last minute," Lewis said. "We aren't going to know probably until May or June of 1992."

Possibly increasing temptations to retire is the intriguing relationship between campaign funds and redistricting. The typical member of Congress who would be allowed to keep campaign funds if he or she retired next year has an average of $206,205 in states that are not facing dramatic changes in redistricting.


(Additional information)


Nest eggs are golden

Here is a list of the top 20 convertible campaign funds and the age of the House member who controls each.

1. Stephen Solarz, D-N.Y., 50, $1.39 million

2. Dan Rostenkowski, D-Ill., 63, $1.05 million

3. James Quillen, R-Tenn., 75, $882,000

4. Matthew Rinaldo, R-N.J., 59, $880,000

5. Robert Matsui, D-Calif., 49, $756,000

6. Carlos Moorehead, R-Calif., 69, $720,000

7. Thomas Foley, D-Wash., 62, $705,000

8. Larry Hopkins, R-Ky., 57, $661,000

9. William Broomfield, R-Mich., 69, $666,000

10. William Archer, R-Texas, 63, $644,000

11. Sam Gibbons, D-Fla., 71, $624,000

12. Norman Lent, R-N.Y., 60, $600,000

13. Dante Fascell, D-Fla., 74, $597,000

14. Tom Bevill, D-Ala., 70, $563,000

15. Douglas Barnard, D-Ga., 69, $555,000

16. Robert Roe, D-N.J., 67, $548,000

17. Brian Donnelly, D-Mass., 45, $542,000

18. Jack Brooks, D-Texas, 70, $528,000

19. John LaFalce, D-N.Y., 51, $516,000

20. Vic Fazio, D-Calif., 50, $503,000