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Dan Lungren looks back at nearly two decades in Congress

Former Congressman Dan Lungren, 66, doesn't have immediate plans because he hadn't planned on losing his re-election bid in November.
Former Congressman Dan Lungren, 66, doesn't have immediate plans because he hadn't planned on losing his re-election bid in November.

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The new Congress was sworn in this week, but one veteran lawmaker missing was Dan Lungren, who served constituents in both Northern and Southern California.

The Republican spent ten years in the House representing his native Long Beach, ran and won the state Attorney General’s job, then ran again in 2005 to represent a Sacramento district. But he was defeated in November by a Democrat.

Lungren ended nearly two decades on Capitol Hill exactly where he started: in the same two-room Longworth House Office Building suite. Back in 1979, Lungren says this was freshman turf— a small office for him and, next door, a room for his receptionist, some staff, and his personal assistant ("At that time we called them secretary"). His entire legislative staff was in an office on another floor. A slightly fancier office now houses the boss of the House Administration Committee, a job Lungren has turned over to a new chairman.

Lungren says Congress has changed. When he first came to Capitol Hill, he moved his wife and three small kids with him to Washington. He says it made sense because most of the work of Congress is done here. That meant running into the families of other members at church or Little League.

"And I think it allowed a better understanding of one another in the House," says Lungren, "irrespective of party or political philosophy because you saw them as fathers or mothers. You saw them as people who had the concerns you had in raising your children and being able to spend time with them."

Lungren says he would still spend weekends in the district. But now, he says, there’s a stigma attached — you’re almost “disloyal” if you bring your family to Washington. These days, he says there are as many as 80 members living in their offices, which Lungren calls "absurd...almost like a fraternity."

Lungren returned to California in the 1990s, serving a four-year term as Attorney General. He says that experience helped inform his second stint on Capitol Hill, this time representing Sacramento. Then one-time English major says he always had an appreciation for the words used to write laws. As Attorney General, he saw the real world impact: "You see how two words or a word or phrase or a sentence can make all the difference in the world in one being convicted of an offense or one losing or winning a civil case."

When Lungren first ran for Congress, he says he raised about $250,000. The amount spent by both campaigns and independent groups in this past election? More than $13 million. How much of Lungren’s time was spent raising money?

"Too much," he says. He adds that he doesn't like raising money: "That’s the most distasteful part of this job and I’m not one of those who does that easily. So for me, it’s a double burden. It’s not just the time, but I just don’t like doing it. I don’t like asking people for money."

Lungren says he doesn’t believe campaign money influenced his decisions on Capitol Hill. "I was a pretty independent guy from the beginning," he says. "They pretty much knew that. So I don’t know. Maybe they didn’t make entreaties to me that they would have tried to make to somebody else."

His solution to campaign financing in a post-Citizens United world? Lift the limits on individual contributions to candidates and political parties. Lungren won’t be able to introduce that legislation in the new Congress.  He was defeated in November by Democrat Ami Bera, a physician who unsuccessfully ran against Lungren in 2010.

Lungren says he’s proud of the work he did on the House Judiciary Committee, particularly the Comprehensive Crime Control Act, the first major revision of the U.S. criminal code in nearly a century. And then cites another part of his legacy:

"You also say: when you leave a place, did you leave a mark on this place? And in a very real sense, I can say that because I managed to get the words of the national motto, In God We Trust, chiseled in stone" at the entry to the Capitol Visitors Center.

As to what’s next, the 66-year-old Lungren says he doesn’t know. He wasn’t planning on losing. Lungren ran twice for Congress from two different districts. What about a third? Lungren chuckles, citing his marriage of 43 years: "I fear if I run again, I won’t reach the 44th. And that’s pretty important to me."

Lungren does have one immediate goal: cheer on his alma mater Notre Dame in its BCS championship game on Monday.   

Dan Lungren was also a foot soldier in the fight for comprehensive immigration reform. He speaks about what it was like to get bipartisan support back in 1986, and what it will take today. Click the "Listen Here" button above.