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Washingtonian’s Best & Worst of Congress

Who’s the best-looking member of Congress? The smartest? The meanest? Top aides on Capitol Hill tell all.

If you catch Eric Cantor on C-Span, you’ll likely find him a pleasant enough fellow. Good hair, nice teeth, nothing remarkable. Don’t be fooled. The four-term congressman from Richmond is a budding GOP power broker, someone who one day might win the White House.

That’s according to the people who know Congress best—the top aides on Capitol Hill. Every election year, we survey 1,700 of them—administrative assistants, press secretaries, legislative directors, and chiefs of committee staffs—to get their take on the best and worst members of Congress. Who’s smart? Who’s not? And who looks good in a swimsuit?

For each response, we gave a dollar to charity—the Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Washington or So Others Might Eat.

Aides are remarkably candid in their responses, even putting aside partisanship to dress down stars of their own party. Here are their picks—and pans—for 2008.

Who would make your Best and Worst lists? What category would you like to see? Who do you think is misplaced? Sound off in the comments! And if you like this article, you may want to check out our list of the 150 Most Powerful People in Washington, or our 50 Top Lobbyists.

Senate

Rising Star

1. Jim Webb (D-Va.)

2. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.)

3. John Thune (R-S.D.)

Webb got more votes than the other two combined.

Falling Star

1. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.)

2. Larry Craig (R-Id.)

3. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska)

Republicans stuffed the ballot box for Clinton.

Workhorse

1. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.)

2. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.)

3. Tie: Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), Richard Lugar (R-Ind.)

A sentimental vote? Perhaps. But in his fifth decade in the Senate, Kennedy still has a hand in lots of major bills.

Show Horse

1. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.)

2. Barack Obama (D-Ill.)

3. Joe Biden (D-Del.)

Schumer loves the camera. Conservative Brent Bozell once complained, “The media appear Schumer-owned and -operated.”

Hunk

1. John Thune (R-S.D.)

2. Barack Obama (D-Ill.)

3. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.)

“Half of us have creepy politician crushes on John Thune,” writes one staffer on her blog. People mag dubbed Obama a “beach babe.”

Babe

1. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.)

2. Mary Landrieu (D-La.)

3. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska)

Nearing 50, Cantwell’s still a Hill hottie.

Best Friend to Lobbyists

1. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska)

2. John McCain (R-Ariz.)

3. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.)

McCain’s complicated relationship with lobbyists is on display: Democrats put him on this list, while …

Enemy of Lobbyists

1. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.)

2. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.)

3. John McCain (R-Ariz.)

… Republicans sing of his independence and toughness here.

King/Queen of Earmarks

1. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska)

2. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.)

3. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.)

Stevens—infamous for his earmark for what became known as the “bridge to nowhere”—and other ranking Republicans on the Appropriations Committee are “outright hogs,” a GOP aide said.

Most Eloquent

1. Barack Obama (D-Ill.)

2. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.)

3. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.)

Obama beats Byrd here for the first time, likely thanks to his campaign oratory. Republican John Cornyn finishes a close fourth.

Biggest Drone

1. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.)

2. Joe Biden (D-Del.)

3. Tie: Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.)

Like a Hall of Fame pitcher past his prime, Byrd sometimes goes on too long. Mitch McConnell and Tom Coburn were the top Republican vote getters.

Meanest

1. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.)

2. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.)

3. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.)

To know you is to fear you: These three got the overwhelming majority of their votes from staff in their own parties.

Nicest

1. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.)

2. Ben Cardin (D-Md.)

3. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.)

Lincoln was a bipartisan pick; Cardin and Stabenow won votes only from Dems.

Funniest

1. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.)

2. Joe Biden (D-Del.)

3. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.)

Roberts, with double the votes of Biden and Kennedy combined, is the Senate’s Jay Leno.

Biggest Jock

1. John Thune (R-S.D.)

2. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.)

3. John Ensign (R-Nev.)

Thune was a three-sport high-school athlete and played college basketball.

Brainiest

1. Tie: Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), John Sununu (R-N.H.)

3. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.)

Clinton lost the nomination, and Sununu’s lagging in the polls—more evidence that voters don’t always like smart politicians.

Clueless

1. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.)

2. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.)

A partisan vote, with Dems fingering Bunning and Republicans pointing to Stabenow.

Best Dressed

1. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.)

2. Barack Obama (D-Ill.)

3. John Warner (R-Va.)

“Nobody can rock the bold pinstriped suit like the Republican from Oregon,” said the Hill newspaper. Obama has turned business casual into GQ cool.

Fashion Victim

1. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.)

2. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)

3. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.)

Sanders and Stabenow debut in the top three.

Most Likely to Star in a Scandal

1. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska)

2. David Vitter (R-La.)

3. Larry Craig (R-Id.)

Aides cast their votes before Stevens was indicted on corruption charges.

Least Likely to Star in a Scandal

1. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.)

2. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.)

3. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.)

An antipork champion, Coburn has said: “I’m not liked very well, but I’m like the gopher that’s going to keep on digging until someone spears me or traps me.”

Senator I’d Like to See as President

1. Barack Obama (D-Ill.)

2. John McCain (R-Ariz.)

3. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.)

A party-line vote. Others getting big support include John Thune, Jon Kyl, and Lindsey Graham.

House

Rising Star

1. Eric Cantor (R-Va.)

2. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.)

3. Tie: Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), Adam Putnam (R-Fla.)

Cantor, 45, and Schultz, 41, joined party leadership in only their second term.

Falling Star

1. John Boehner (R-Ohio)

2. Tie: Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), Tom Cole (R-Okla.)

The November elections don’t bode well for the GOP—a grim prospect for party leaders Boehner and Blunt.

Workhorse

1. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.)

2. David Obey (D-Wis.)

3. Barney Frank (D-Mass.)

Republicans split their votes, though Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) won big support.

Show Horse

1. Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-Tex.)

2. Tie: Mike Pence (R-Ind.), Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.)

Jackson-Lee has won top honors for grandstanding in our last four staff surveys.

Hunk

1. Brad Ellsworth (D-Ind.)

2. Connie Mack (R-Fla.)

3. Tie: Gene Taylor (D-Miss.), Heath Shuler (D-N.C.)

The Hill put the freshman Ellsworth, a former sheriff, atop its 2007 list of Capitol Hill’s 50 most beautiful people.

Babe

1. Mary Bono Mack (R-Calif.)

2. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D-S.D.)

3. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.)

Sonny Bono’s widow married hunk Connie Mack last year.

Best Friend to Lobbyists

1. John Murtha (D-Pa.)

2. Don Young (R-Alaska)

3. John Boehner (R-Ohio)

Murtha’s coziness with defense contractors helped sink his bid to become majority leader.

Enemy of Lobbyists

1. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.)

2. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.)

Flake’s crusades against earmarks won him six times as many votes as Waxman.

King/Queen of Earmarks

1. John Murtha (D-Pa.)

2. Don Young (R-Alaska)

3. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.)

They bring home the bacon—and make no apologies for it.

Most Eloquent

1. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.)

2. Barney Frank (D-Mass.)

3. David Dreier (R-Calif.)

GOP support put Hoyer ahead of Frank.

Biggest Drone

1. Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-Tex.)

2. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.)

Do these two suffer from overexposure on C-Span?

Meanest

1. Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-Tex.)

2. David Obey (D-Wis.)

Jackson-Lee burns through staff; Obey became a YouTube star for his blowup with peace activists who questioned his antiwar credentials.

Nicest

1. Lois Capps (D-Calif.)

Votes were cast for more than 50 members, but the daughter of a Lutheran minister won hands down.

Funniest

1. Barney Frank (D-Mass.)

2. John Boehner (R-Ohio)

3. Ralph Hall (R-Tex.)

Frank wins in a landslide. Should voters worry that the architect of mortgage-assistance bills is given to one-liners? “A funny thing happened on the way to foreclosure… .”

Biggest Jock

1. Heath Shuler (D-N.C.)

2. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.)

The former Redskin QB scores. Wamp has starred in congressional baseball games.

Brainiest

1. Barney Frank (D-Mass.)

2. Vernon Ehlers (R-Mich.)

3. Rush Holt (D-N.J.)

Ehlers once taught physics at Berkeley; Holt is a five-time Jeopardy! champion.

Clueless

1. Corrine Brown (D-Fla.)

2. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.)

Brown has a knack for the impolitic; Bachmann clung to George Bush so tightly after this year’s State of the Union address that some joked he might need a restraining order.

Best Dressed

1. David Dreier (R-Calif.)

2. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.)

3. Jane Harman (D-Calif.)

California cool collects a

trifecta.

Fashion Victim

1. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.)

2. Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-Tex.)

3. Jean Schmidt (R-Ohio)

DeLauro—known for risk-taking scarf colors—regularly tops the balloting.

Most Likely to Star in a Scandal

1. John Murtha (D-Pa.)

2. Vito Fossella (R-N.Y.)

3. William Jefferson (D-La.)

Murtha’s gotta be worried. Staffers think he’s more likely to land in trouble than Fossella (arrested for drunk driving en route to see his mistress) and Jefferson (target of an FBI corruption sting that turned up $90,000 of questionable origin in his freezer).

Least Likely to Star in a Scandal

1. Lois Capps (D-Calif.)

2. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.)

Capps is a good egg; Flake is the House’s ethics crusader.

Member I’d Like to See as President in 2012

1. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.)

2. Mike Pence (R-Ind.)

3. Eric Cantor (R-Va.)

Others getting big support included Rahm Emanuel, Ron Paul, Paul Ryan, and Jeff Flake.

Related:
Washington's 150 Most Powerful
Senators Don't Lead Such Charmed Lives
The Legend of Barack Obama

This article appears in the September 2008 issue of Washingtonian magazine. To see more articles in this issue, click here.

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