What now for ousted lawmakers?

By Anne Fisher, contributor

FORTUNE -- Still reeling from yesterday's historic upset, scores of lame-duck lawmakers are likely taking the first steps toward cleaning out their desks at the Rayburn Building.

"Of course, everyone knows the date of the election, so in that regard this may be less of a surprise than a pink slip," says Ira Chaleff, president of Washington, D.C-based Executive Coaching & Consulting Associates and chairman of the Congressional Management Foundation, a nonprofit group that provides leadership training to legislators.

"Still, losing can be a shock, and it often causes tremendous anxiety, where the person is thinking, 'I've been a big shot in Congress for so long, but do I actually know how to do anything?'"

"The loss of prestige and perks is a similar blow whether you're losing an executive job or a Congressional seat," Chaleff says.

Ousted lawmakers, though, face two worries that don't usually beset displaced executives.

First, there's the issue of where to live.

"Do you stay in D.C. or move back to your home state? A lot depends on your spouse's career, how old your kids are and whether you want to uproot them. It also depends on whether you had a career back home, as an attorney or in some other field, that you feel you can go back to," Chaleff says.

What to do with your staff is another worry for election losers. Unlike underlings in private companies, most of whom usually stay put if the boss gets sacked, Congressional staffers of defeated candidates are out on the street now, too.

"Some of these people have been working on Capitol Hill for many years. Concern for their futures adds an extra layer of stress," says Chaleff.

Still, Thomas W. Morris III, who heads Washington executive coaching firm Morris Associates, thinks many politicians land on their feet more easily than private-sector folks.

"Once a business executive settles into a job, he or she often stops actively networking and keeping an eye out for other opportunities. By contrast, elected officials never stop networking -- and, especially right after an election, they have loads of valuable connections."

It's quite rare, however, for a Congressperson to go so far as to line up another job, just in case, before voters go to the polls.

"If the press found about that, it would hurt their chances for re-election. It's too risky," Morris says. "Even so, most lawmakers keep a discreet list of influential people who have said, 'Hey, if God forbid, you lose this race, call me.'"

Being booted out of any job is an opportunity to pause, take a deep breath, and make a fresh start, Morris says. Here, too, defeated candidates may have an edge over their private-sector brethren.

"Executives who get let go have often been immersed in pursuing their company's goals," Morris says. "But most politicians have personal projects they're spearheading, and they may actually find it easier to continue working on those once freed of their other responsibilities in Congress."

A case in point: Former Washington State Congresswoman Linda Smith, who lost a Senate bid in 1998 and went on to work full time for a cause she had taken up while still in office. She now runs Shared Hope International a nonprofit dedicated to fighting the worldwide child sex trafficking industry.

Another silver lining to losing a seat in Congress, Ira Chaleff, adds, is that the job just isn't much fun lately.

"Congresspeople get tired of always campaigning, always fundraising. It's exhausting to never stop running for office," he observes. "And then, the rancor and anger on Capitol Hill, and in the populace at large, has gotten so bad, it really wears on people."

No matter how disappointing a loss at the polls may be, Chaleff says, some ousted incumbents "are glad to get off the treadmill." To top of page

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