I was talking at lunch about the slightly weird idea of “political courage,” as in the idea that voting “yes” on a substantively good and substantively important but politically risky bill requires courage or guts. Sometimes political change really does take courage. To march in Selma, Alabama and have state troopers beat you up takes courage. To take to the streets in Iran and risk beatings or sniper fire takes courage. What happens if you take risky congressional votes? Well, you might lose. You might wind up like Nancy Boyda, pictured to the right. She won an election in 2006 to represent Kansas in the US House of Representatives. In 2008, she lost. And now she’s deputy assistant secretary of defense for manpower and personnel.
I can imagine worse fates. Steve Chabot, a Republican, lost his seat in 2008 and now he’s running again in 2010. After Max Cleland lost his Senate seat, he was on the board of the Export-Import Bank and now he has a gig with the American Battle Monuments Commission. Of course lots of former members of congress work in lobbying or for trade associations. You could always go get a real job. And lots of these people are old. Average age in the House is 56 and it’s 62 in the Senate. Congressional pensions are generous, you can always retire and hang out with your grandkids.
The point isn’t that these are wildly glamorous or awesome fates. But it’s hardly a nightmare of suffering. People tend to act as if the nation’s homeless shelters are littered with congressmen who lost their elections, but it just isn’t so. Win or lose these people have fine lives. Better lives than, say, those who are forced into bankruptcy by a loved one’s illness. I think a member can legitimately say that he or she doesn’t want to risk his or her seat over a relatively unimportant issue, on the grounds that you want to be around to do important things. So fine. But that means you can’t say you don’t want to do the important things just because it might marginally impact your odds of re-election.