As he approached retirement age, his worries that government was growing out of control led him to try his hand at politics. He lost races for the U.S. Senate in 1980 and the House in 1982.
“When I was younger and trying to raise a family, I had less time to think about that,” said Mr. Bartlett, who has 10 children. “But as I wound down, I had a little more time to think about it, and that’s why I ran.”
Mr. Bartlett is very much a party-line conservative. He joined the tea party — a group that reflected his long-standing fiscal views when it emerged — in 2010, and he signed Grover Norquist’s tax pledge that same year.
But he was one of just 27 House Republicans to vote against reauthorizing the USA Patriot Act in 2011, arguing that it was an affront to civil liberties.
He has fought in recent years for bipartisan legislation seeking to ban chimpanzee research and has been especially vocal on the need for renewable energy — a cause he said Democrats are leading, but mainly for environmental reasons rather than fossil-fuel depletion.
He helped found the Congressional Peak Oil Caucus in 2005. Caucus members argue that the world’s oil reserves are fast running out and that the U.S. must tackle its fossil-fuel dependence by investing in alternative energy.
Mr. Bartlett drives a Toyota Prius and claims to be the first member of Congress to own a hybrid car. His concerns have led him to stockpile food and supplies in a remote, solar- and wind-powered cabin in West Virginia, in case the nation’s energy grid fails one day.
“[Energy] is going to be the overarching issue for the next decade,” he said. “I think we would be more than lucky if we avoid a major geopolitical tension that could result in war in the next decade.”
The number of lawmakers who vote with moderate viewpoints have diminished in the past 30 years. A report this year by National Journal found that the number of legislators who don’t vote along partisan lines has dwindled to almost none.
In 1982, 344 members of the House had voting records between the most left-leaning Republican and most right-leaning Democrat. In 2011, that number was 16.
Fifty-eight senators in 1982 occupied that same middle ground. None did so last year.
The declining moderate influence on Capitol Hill has resulted in fewer politicians like Mr. Bartlett, who embrace some party ideals but are willing to work across the aisle and take stances that defy party lines.
Mr. Bartlett said he has gone to leaders of both parties with a proposal to avoid the “fiscal cliff” by instituting federal cuts and a simplified flat consumption tax that he predicts would save billions of dollars without raising taxes. Neither side has shown much interest.
With just a lame duck session separating him from retirement to his Buckeystown farm, he said both parties must find common ground and shared interests, but he appears uncertain that it could happen in the short term on fiscal issues.
Mr. Fortier suggested that long-term fixes are possible and could include opening primaries to independents, but the solution isn’t as simple as the parties agreeing to bury the hatchet.