WASHINGTON — Congress is making it tough on Rep. Dan Boren to retire.
Less than three weeks from ending his eight-year tenure in the U.S. House, Boren doesn't even have an office anymore. Like other departing members, he and his staff have been given a small cubicle in the basement of a House building, as new and returning lawmakers claim the vacant Capitol Hill office space.
Most committees aren't holding hearings and there is not much in the way of legislative work. But Boren has been shuttling back and forth between Oklahoma and Washington prepared to vote on any deal reached to extend expiring tax breaks and enact new spending cuts.
In an interview last week, the Muskogee Democrat said he wasn't optimistic about voting on a comprehensive solution to the nation's fiscal problems.
“From most of the rank-and-file members that I talk to, I hear that we are going to go over the (fiscal) cliff, that both sides are too far apart, that it's just probably going to be taken back up in February and maybe some of these tax cuts will be put into effect retroactively,'' he said.
“You never say never; maybe something gets done at the last minute. But if it does get done, it's going to be Dec. 30, Dec. 31. It won't be, I don't think, in the next few days.”
Boren came to Washington in 2005, the third generation of his family to serve in Congress. His grandfather, Lyle, served in the House from 1937 to 1947, and his father, David, was a U.S. senator from 1979 to 1994.
Like his grandfather and father, Boren had a reputation as a maverick willing to buck his party's orthodoxy. When the Democrats controlled the House from 2007 to 2011, Boren voted against some of his party's biggest initiatives, including the health care bill. He was among his party's strongest advocates for the energy industry, pushing for more production when many Democrats wanted more regulation of hydraulic fracturing.
But even his conservative voting record couldn't shield him from the political backlash in eastern Oklahoma against President Barack Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. In 2010, Boren got less than 57 percent of the vote against an unknown Republican opponent with relatively little campaign money. That was down from 70 percent in 2008 and 73 percent in 2006.
With national Republicans sure to target his seat in 2012, Boren decided not to run again.
“I saw the elections in the future were going to be competitive — more and more fundraising, more and more time away from home. My daughter's 5 and my son's 2. My daughter's just getting to the point where she knows I'm leaving to go to D.C., and (says) ‘Daddy don't leave' and that sort of thing. Last night, I got to see her play an elf in a Christmas play. So those are the kinds of things I don't want to miss.”
National Democratic Party organizations didn't even try to defend Boren's seat, even though the 2nd Congressional District is still dominated by registered Democrats. Republican Markwayne Mullin won every county in the largely rural district last month, and the congressional delegation will be all Republican for the first time since 2000.
“I think things have become much more nationalized, so you can't run as a local Democrat, as I did, as an Oklahoma Democrat,” Boren said. “You get so tied to national figures. But I do think Oklahoma has room for a Democratic Party, and I think it would be healthy for Oklahoma to have, really, a two-party system so that there is this compromise.”
Boren said a Democrat could still be elected statewide, “but they'll have to be the right fit for the state.”
He might be the Democrat to test that theory. He said he won't challenge Gov. Mary Fallin in 2014, but he said a future race is a 50-50 proposition.
“I think governor is the only thing I would ever consider doing and it may not ever be the right time — for the kids and then for the political situation,” he said.
Boren had nearly $700,000 in his campaign account at the end of September, and he could not use that money for a race for state office. He said he had recently donated $150,000 to Seminole State College for a building that will house student government offices. And he gave $25,000 to the Communities Foundation of Oklahoma for a scholarship fund.
Boren's next job will be president of corporate development for the Chickasaw Nation. He and his family are looking to relocate to the Oklahoma City area.
Rep. Tom Cole, R-Moore, a member of the tribe, said, “Dan Boren has served his district and our state with great integrity and skill. I will miss him as a colleague but certainly intend to keep him as a friend. I have no doubt he will continue to make positive contributions to Oklahoma and the country in the years ahead.”
Boren will leave Washington in agreement with those who think Congress is broken. But he won't leave cynical or pessimistic about it.
“I think it's broken, but I think it's fixable,” he said.
“Both parties are electing people that are way out on the left and right flanks, and there's no incentive for them to compromise. So if we're going to solve these huge challenges — whether they are fiscal problems or other problems — we can't do it when there's no incentive for people to work together and to give a little bit.”
“You can be callous and mad and say, ‘This place is totally bad,'” he said. “But the experience has been great. I think I've grown as a person, hopefully.”