Being a member of Congress isn’t the easiest job these days.
Members generally spend their time jockeying for position rather than looking for common ground.
Two local members of Congress found their own ways to cope with this stress.
U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Niles, began practicing a type of meditation called “mindfulness,” and even wrote a book about it. He thinks the technique should be used more in schools, corporations, the health-care industry and by his colleagues in Congress.
“I think it could help,” he said in a recent sit-down interview.
U.S. Rep. Steve LaTourette, R-Bainbridge Township, took a different approach. He quit — surprising many with his decision not to seek another term. He now plans to help Main Street Partnership start a Super PAC to support moderate Congressional candidates.
“This is a new project in light of what’s going on to raise as much money as we can to offer comfort and protection to members of both parties,” he said in a recent phone interview from Washington, D.C. “You don’t have to be a Republican. You have to be brave enough to do the right thing for our country.”
As the year draws to a close, the Beacon Journal talked to Ryan and LaTourette about their thoughts on the lack of civility and congeniality among members of Congress and what can be done to improve it.
Ryan, 39, discovered mindfulness at a five-day retreat he attended in the Catskills in New York just after the 2008 election.
He was required to check his two BlackBerrys at the door, not an easy step for a member of Congress used to being plugged in. It got easier as the days progressed and those at the retreat talked less and less, ending with a 36-hour period of silence.
“My mind and body were in the same place at the same time — synchronized in a way I had rarely experienced,” he recalled.
Ryan adopted mindfulness as part of his daily routine, spending 40 to 45 minutes at home or in his house gym in Washington, D.C., focused on breathing in and out and trying to clear his mind. He says it’s changed his life.
“I think I would be completely burnt out right now if I didn’t start doing this,” said Ryan, a member of Congress since 2002 who easily won re-election in November.
Ryan wrote a book called A Mindful Nation: How a Simple Practice Can Help Us Reduce Stress, Improve Performance, and Recapture the American Spirit, published in March, that details his discovery of mindfulness as well as the research behind it and how it’s being used in schools, the health-care industry and by first responders and the military.
“I believe I would be derelict in my duty as a congressman if I didn’t do my part to make mindfulness accessible to as many people as possible in our nation,” Ryan says in the book.
Ryan was able to secure $1 million in federal funds to start mindfulness programs in schools in Warren and Youngstown. He said the effort has showed promising results and is being expanded from kindergarten through second grade to kindergarten through fifth grade.
“Growing up, I remember two phrases being drilled into my head from my mom, the nuns, and my other teachers: Pay Attention! And Be Nice!” Ryan wrote in his book. “Well the most frustrating part of growing up and hearing that was that no one ever showed us how to pay attention! It’s not something you do automatically. It needs to be taught and practiced.”
Ryan says he’s gotten a positive response to his book, with numerous media outlets writing about it and several members of Congress asking him —albeit quietly — “What is this? I need this.”
“When the pitch is so high and the temperature so hot, it does nothing but create stress,” Ryan said of the current state of Congress. “If you want to have less anger, you need to be less angry.”
Ryan was sorry to hear LaTourette, who is known as a moderate willing to work with people across the aisle, had decided not to run again. Still, he said he understands LaTourette’s frustration. He said LaTourette was the kind of guy “behind-the-scenes who could get things done.”
“Now, the whole system has come to a halt,” he said.
LaTourette, 58, joined Congress at a combative time in 1994 as Republicans seized control of the House for the first time in 40 years.
“There are a few people who say, ‘Now’s our chance to pay them back for the way we were treated,’ ” said LaTourette, who was part of the “Contract with America” GOP wave. “On the Democratic side, there was a lot of disappointment. That lasted for a while.”
When President Bill Clinton was in office, the Republicans maintained the majority in the House. LaTourette said Clinton “got it.”
“He was able to not surrender any of his principles and find ways to get some of what he wanted done and give us some of the things we were working for,” he said. “At the end of the day, we got to govern.”
LaTourette said the current stalemate in Congress is beyond anything he saw during his tenure. He said the House has been unable to pass a transportation bill or a farm bill.
“I don’t understand what’s partisan about student loan rates,” he said. “Nobody in America thought it was a good idea to pay double the interest rate.”
“Those were things we didn’t used to break a sweat doing when I first got here,” he continued. “Now, it’s so poisonous, even if an idea that has merit comes from the other team, both sides have to find a reason to hate it.”
When LaTourette announced his decision to retire in July, he said, “For a long time now, words like compromise have been considered dirty words.”
“I’ve always believed that the art of being a legislator is finding common ground,” he added.
The Republicans picked Geauga County Prosecutor David Joyce to replace LaTourette on the ballot and Joyce easily held onto the seat for the party. Joyce and LaTourette have been friends for 30 years. LaTourette wishes Joyce luck but expects him to have some of the same challenges that he and retired U.S. Rep. Ralph Regula, another GOP moderate from the Akron area, faced.
“He will not want to be seen as a puppeteer,” LaTourette said of Joyce. “The title is ‘representative.’ He will represent the people in the district. He will answer that call.”
LaTourette has been a board member of Main Street Partnership’s political action committee for five years and, with his retirement, is now able to be more involved with the group. He thinks the organization can provide a voice for “the moderate centrist wing of the Republican Party” that doesn’t currently exist and perhaps, ultimately, improve the dynamics of Congress.
He is also seeking a paying job and may look into teaching or return to practicing law.
LaTourette hasn’t read Ryan’s book and thinks that the odds of his colleague convincing the rest of Congress to adopt his mindfulness approach are “slim and none.” He did say, however, that he’s noticed a change in Ryan since he adopted the practice. He said Ryan used to give some of the most partisan speeches he’d heard in his lifetime.
“Now that he’s embarked on this project and book, I find him to be a lot more thoughtful,” he said. “Even if he can’t spread this to everyone else in the House, the fact that he practices it, that’s going to be an improvement.”