WASHINGTON — Rep. Elton Gallegly says he doesn't wake up in the middle of the night haunted by the fateful decision he made 30 years ago: to drop out of college.
The Simi Valley Republican says he would love to have a college degree framed on the wall behind his congressional desk. But he figures that if he had the piece of parchment, he might not have the desk.
"I don't regret tremendously that I didn't finish because I don't know if I would have gotten my business going and had the success I had," said Gallegly, who left Cal State Los Angeles in 1963 about halfway through. "It would have been great to have had a diploma, but I'm not sorry with the way my life has turned out."
The Constitution lays out the prerequisites for entrance into Congress: U.S. citizenship, 25 years of age for House members, 30 years for senators. That's it.
The chairman of the Budget Committee doesn't need an accounting degree. Voting to declare war requires not a single course in international affairs. Speech classes? That's what C-SPAN is for.
It is true that Congress is full of Ivy Leaguers, high-powered lawyers, PhDs, MDs and those with other assorted sheepskins. But there is also a group of lawmakers--a surprisingly large group--who never graduated from college.
Rep. Sonny Bono (R-Palm Springs) failed gym at Inglewood High School--and went straight to work driving a truck for a meat company. Gallegly got the itch to start a business midway through college and dropped out before he earned a degree. Rep. Brian Bilbray (R-San Diego) took off on a motorcycle in 1972 for a cross-country trip and never finished at Southwestern Community College, which he said "bored him to death."
"A degree is a status thing in our society but I have more than my share of that," said Bilbray, who does not regret the path he took. "I was very lucky. Not going to college never became a barrier to me."
Bilbray said he is not intimidated a bit by all his Capitol Hill colleagues and their degrees.
"I never went to law school but I will debate British common law or immigration with any lawyer," Bilbray said.
How many college dropouts made it to Congress?
When Bono entered the House in 1994, he leaned over to a colleague and said he figured he was the lone dropout in the sea of powerhouse professionals.
Bono happened to be speaking to Bilbray, who had not graduated either. There are two dropouts in the House, Bilbray offered.
In fact, there are 58 lawmakers who did not follow the traditional collegiate path--sidetracked by family businesses or unable to handle tuition costs or just restless to get out of the classroom and start living life. That's nearly 11% of the Congress.
"My course happened to work out a little differently," Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.) told a Capitol Hill newspaper, The Hill, that tallied up the number of dropouts earlier this year. "I never found it a handicap."
Simon has 41 honorary degrees from colleges far and wide but no bachelor's degree to speak of. He dropped out of Dana College in Nebraska to buy a small newspaper in Troy, Ill., becoming the youngest newspaper publisher in the country.
Now one of nine senators without an undergraduate degree, the bow-tie wearing lawmaker will return to the classroom upon his retirement next year, as a professor at Southern Illinois University.
Also in the club is Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.), who dropped out of Palm Beach Community College to open a restaurant. Foley's lack of a college degree became an issue in his 1994 campaign when Democratic candidate John Comerford brought it up at a candidate's forum.
Foley's campaign struck back by suggesting that Comerford's master's degree in international affairs from Harvard was questionable because he earned it from the university's night school.
Despite having won a seat in Congress, the highest legislative body in the land, some lawmakers still regret not having finished their studies decades ago.
A spokesman for Rep. Richard W. Pombo (R-Tracy) said the congressman considers his decision not to finish a big mistake. He came close, completing more than three years' worth of classes at Cal Poly Pomona. The spokesman, Mike Hardiman, did not explain exactly why Pombo failed to finish, saying only that Pombo left college in 1982 to work on the family ranch.
Some lawmakers made heroic efforts to earn degrees, such as Rep. Esteban Torres (D-Pico Rivera), who has enrolled at four colleges over the years. But despite stints at East Los Angeles College, Cal State Los Angeles, University of Maryland and American University, the former auto worker never came away with a bachelor's degree.
Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon (R-Santa Clarita) has his bachelor's degree from Brigham Young University proudly displayed.
But McKeon, chairman of the House panel overseeing higher education policy, understands how easy it is to get sidetracked from college. After all, he completed college on the 30-year plan.