“Why We Left Congress”: Excerpts of Our Conversation with Rep. Jimmy Duncan (R-TN)

Congressman Jimmy Duncan (R-TN) has represented Tennessee’s 2nd Congressional District for 30 years. He was first elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in a 1988 special election following the death of his father, Congressman John Duncan, who had been in office since 1965.

During the 115th Congress, Duncan served as the vice chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Previously, he chaired the committee’s subcommittee on aviation as well as its subcommittee focused on highways and transit issues.

Prior to his congressional career, Duncan served in the Army National Guard and the Army Reserve. He was also a state court judge in Tennessee from 1981 to 1988.

In July 2017, Duncan announced that he would not seek re-election, saying he “wanted to spend less time in airports, airplanes, and traveling around the district and more time with [his] family.”

In September 2018, Duncan appeared at an exit interview event on Capitol Hill hosted by the R Street Institute. Issue One and the R Street Institute compiled the following excerpts from Duncan’s remarks there — as well as a separate conversation afterwards — for the “Why We Left Congress” project, a joint report about congressional dysfunction and what can be done to fix it, based on exit interviews with a bipartisan group of lawmakers who decided not to run for re-election in 2018.

On the state of the political system today:

I’m not sure that anything is working exactly as it was intended. The Founding Fathers, I think, would be shocked at the whole situation that we’re confronted with today.

On how committee assignments and chairmanships are awarded:

I didn’t like, and still don’t like, the system that [former House Speaker] Newt Gingrich set up and which both parties have followed … that they base chairmanships and other things on how much money you raise for the party, and you have to give the leadership your voting card — neither one of which I’ve been willing to do. And I think it’s really unfortunate that your knowledge of a committee or your hard work on a committee doesn’t mean much at all. What means most is how much money you raise and whether you’re willing to give your voting card to the leadership.

On what happens if a member of Congress doesn’t pay their party dues:

Listen, you don’t get these chairmanships.

What criteria he believes should be used to determine committee chairmanships:

People should become committee chairmen if they’ve been really active on those committees and … also people should have some knowledge or expertise in those areas.

On the amount of time some members of Congress reportedly spend fundraising:

What amazes me when I hear people say … members of Congress spend 30 percent of their time raising money or something like that — I really don’t think that’s true, number one — but if it is, and anybody does have to spend that much time, I feel sorry for them.

How he raised money for his campaigns:

I had hired a professional fundraiser up here who, you know, raised some money. And then I had people in the district who were willing to help me. But I was told, at times, that I could raise three times as much money if I were to make these personal calls. But I just didn’t want to do that. I found that distasteful, and I just wanted to spend more time working at my job.

How lawmakers would spend their time if they didn’t have to fundraise as much:

They could focus on constituent service number one and committee work number two.

His advice for incoming House members:

I would have to tell them it depends on what they want to do. If they wanna have more influence, I guess, up here, then they’re gonna have to raise a lot more money.

On bipartisanship in Congress:

I’ve been able to get along real well with almost everybody up here, both Democrats and Republicans … While there seems to be more hatred and anger in politics today than there was even back when I first ran, here in the Congress, if you try, you are pretty much able to get along with everybody on both sides … Having grown up in a political family and having spent all these years here, one thing that I can tell you is that the pendulum swings. Sometimes it swings for you; and sometimes it swings against you … It helps if you get along pretty well with both [sides].

On one of the small ways that Congress embraced bipartiship during one of President Barack Obama’s State of the Union addresses:

[A few years ago, there was] a “date night” … [where they] wanted you to sit in the State of the Union with members of the other party. I had two members, Richard Neal of Massachusetts and Jerry Costello of Illinois, who asked me to be their date. I said, “Well, I’ll sit between both of you.”

On the cost of campaigns:

I remember when I first started running somebody said to me, “How much do you think it’ll cost you to run for Congress?” And they said $300,000. And I said, “I sure hope not.” And that first campaign, I spent $405,000. [Editors’ note: Adjusted for inflation, Duncan’s 1988 campaign spent about $900,000 in 2018 dollars. The average winning House candidate in 2018, meanwhile, spent about $1.5 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.]

On negative campaign ads:

Everyone says they’re against negative advertising, but that’s the only kind of advertising that really moves voters, that brings both sides down.

On being the target of negative campaign ads:

The Washington Post had an article about three weeks before the election that said the campaign against me was the most negative in the country that year. And I had been a judge for seven and a half years, and in Tennessee … you’re supposed to resign your judgeship if you run for a non-judicial office. So I had resigned. Went several months without pay. And things got so negative that I told my mother at one point, I said, “Momma, if I had a million dollars tax-free I could pay to get back into my judgeship and get out of this thing, I would do it.”

What he will miss most about serving in Congress:

I’m gonna miss being in the middle of the action … Serving in Congress, you’re playing. You may not be one of the superstars — and I’m not one of the superstars — but I have gotten to play for thirty years in the big leagues.

Want to read more about this topic? Check out the full “Why We Left Congress” report, written by Marian Currinder of the R Street Institute and Michael Beckel and Amisa Ratliff of Issue One.