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Republican dysfunction drives a wave of House retirements

In World
February 22, 2024

WASHINGTON — Some House lawmakers wait their entire political careers to reach one of the pinnacles of power on Capitol Hill: seizing a coveted committee gavel.

That’s why it sent shockwaves around Capitol Hill this month when not one, but three Republican committee chairmen — Cathy McMorris Rodgers, Mike Gallagher and Mark Green, members in their prime who had not yet hit party term limits for their posts — announced in rapid succession that they were calling it quits. McMorris Rodgers, of Washington, and Green, of Tennessee, are in their 50s, while Gallagher, of Wisconsin, is not yet 40.

Two other powerful GOP chairmen, Financial Services Chair Patrick McHenry of North Carolina and Appropriations Chair Kay Granger of Texas, previously announced they’re leaving Congress. Both McHenry and Granger faced term limits as chairmen, and McHenry has had his eyes on the exits since his longtime ally Kevin McCarthy was ousted as speaker, briefly making McHenry the temporary House GOP leader.

The wave of GOP retirements comes in the middle of one of the most tumultuous congressional sessions in recent memory and after a year of nasty GOP infighting that forced out McCarthy, further slashed the party’s paper-thin majority and ground the lower chamber to a halt.

Republican colleagues said mounting frustration with the paralysis and dysfunction in the House is driving out experienced, pragmatic dealmakers on Capitol Hill. And with Republicans now down to a three-seat majority, the prospect of voters sending them back to the minority next year may be exacerbating the brain drain.

The sentiment is: “If we are not successful in doing our work here and we wind up in the minority, who wants to finish out your career here in the minority?” said House Science, Space and Technology Committee Chair Frank Lucas, R-Okla., who is close to many of the retiring members but will be seeking re-election.

The GOP’s narrow majority has handed outsize influence to just a handful of far-right rabble-rousers who have blocked even conservative legislation from passing on the floor. It’s meant that the only way to pass a bipartisan bill is under suspension, an expedited process that has a much higher threshold: two-thirds of the whole House. The last bill signed into law that did not pass through the House under suspension or by unanimous voice vote was the Fiscal Responsibility Act, which prevented a nearly unprecedented default on the U.S.’s debt, on May 31, 2023.

Big money from K Street and private sector firms is also luring away powerful chairmen, Lucas said, especially since lawmakers haven’t seen their $174,000 a year salary increase since the late 2000s.

“There’s been no adjustment for the cost of living since [Denny] Hastert was speaker. … Most of these members are experienced people on really important, relevant committees and the outside world realizes their skill sets, and they’re probably trying to pull on ’em,” Lucas continued. “It’s a combination of all those things — it’s not one particular issue. … And if you want to throw on top of that just the nasty, shrill nature of the legislative process these days.”

“This is kind of an unpleasant town and unpleasant process,” he said.

A wild 118th Congress

Lawmakers are sick of the 118th Congress, even though it’s just a little more than halfway over. It began with a 15-round floor fight over who should be speaker of the House. The year ended with New York Republicans successfully expelling one of their own, George Santos, and with Republicans voting to launch an impeachment inquiry into President Joe Biden. In between, there were showdowns over the debt ceiling and government shutdowns. After McCarthy brought up a vote to spare the country from a shutdown, Rep. Matt Gaetz, of Florida, led a group of eight GOP rebels in ousting him from power, triggering an all-out fight from ambitious Republicans to succeed him.

Little-known Rep. Mike Johnson, R-La., emerged victorious but faces many of the same problems that afflicted his predecessor.

Asked about the retirements during a visit to the Capitol last week, McCarthy laid blame at the feet of Gaetz and his allies: “It’s unfortunate because you think of brain trust you’re losing. Now I blame a lot of that on the Crazy Eight led by Matt Gaetz. They want to make this place dysfunctional to try to wear people out.”

“I wear out politicians? Maybe so,” Gaetz responded. “It sure beats selling out the American people, which McCarthy did until I removed him.”

Rep. Barry Loudermilk, R-Ga., who was elected a decade ago, said he’s decided to run for re-election, in part, so he can continue his investigation into the Jan. 6 committee. But he said it’s no secret why many of his colleagues are heading for the exits.

“There is a level of frustration being here right now, I think, that’s unprecedented,” Loudermilk said in an interview. “Especially when you’re in the majority and we’re still having this much struggle getting some things done that normally we would be able to push through our agenda and then go to fight with the Senate. There’s some that are just like, ‘Is it worth it being here, to go through this?’”

“I do get that from a lot of the people that are retiring before they would have normally done,” Loudermilk added. “Especially when you’ve got folks that have been here for less time than I have that are starting to bail.”

Going out on top

In total, 15 House Republicans who are not running for higher or other office have said they are not seeking re-election in 2024; 11 Democrats not running for another office have said they won’t be back next year. Among the 15 are senior Republicans like Reps. Drew Ferguson, of Georgia, who served in leadership as chief deputy whip and is chairman of the Ways and Means subcommittee on Social Security; Michael Burgess, of Texas, who is the second-most senior Republican on Energy and Commerce; Blaine Luetkemeyer, of Missouri, who is the second-most senior GOP lawmaker on the Small Business Committee; Doug Lamborn, of Colorado, chair of the Armed Services subcommittee on Strategic Forces; and Brad Wenstrup, of Ohio, who heads the select committee on the coronavirus pandemic.

Perhaps the most unexpected retirement is McMorris Rodgers, who held leadership posts before making history as the first female chair of the Energy and Commerce Committee in 2021. Under House GOP rules, Republicans can serve no more than six consecutive years as either chairman or ranking member. McMorris Rodgers, 54, still had two years of eligibility leading the panel, which has jurisdiction over a range of issues from energy and the environment to health care and the internet.

The chairmen made no mention of GOP dysfunction or the risk of losing the majority in their statements announcing their departures. But by leaving now, CMR — as she is known in the Capitol — can go out on top.

Green, 59, in his first term as chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, agreed with that sentiment. He made his announcement just one day after managing the successful vote — on the second try — to impeach Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas.

“I mean, Michael Jordan should never play for the Wizards, right? You go out when you’re on a high and I accomplished what I came here to do,” Green told reporters. “Border security: We passed H.R. 2. And holding this administration accountable: We impeached the first sitting Cabinet secretary in the history of the country.”

Asked if he might run for Tennessee governor, Green coyly replied, “I have learned from my time in Congress that the fight isn’t in Washington. The fight is with Washington.”

‘Congress is no place to grow old’

Gallagher’s fate also appeared to be intertwined with the Mayorkas votes. Chairman of the select committee on the Chinese Communist Party, Gallagher, a 39-year-old rising star in the party whose panel has shown rare bipartisanship this Congress, said he would not seek re-election after he faced conservative backlash for casting one of three GOP votes against impeachment. Rep. Ken Buck, R-Colo., another no vote, also is retiring.

A Marine veteran who served in the Iraq war, Gallagher said in his statement: “Electoral politics was never supposed to be a career and, trust me, Congress is no place to grow old.”

“I’ve been here 15 years,” said Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., an appropriator who previously served on the Intelligence Committee with Gallagher. “The most common line I hear from people now, my colleagues, is: ‘We can’t get anything done and I hate being here.’ That’s the most common refrain. So it’s a recipe for people leaving.”

“You’re not supposed to come here just to fight, you’re supposed to come here to get something done. I still believe the majority want to. I still believe I have a majority of Republicans who want to help Ukraine and help Israel,” Quigley continued. “The farthest right has hijacked the Republican Party and controls far more than they should. It’s the tip of the dog’s tail wagging the body politic.”

One month before longtime Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, the Dean of the House, suddenly died in 2022, he spotted a frustrated and disgruntled Lucas on the House floor.

“What’s up yours?” Young asked, according to Lucas.

“Young looks me in the eye and says, ‘Lucas, people like you and I who were here when this place still worked, we can’t leave. Because if we leave before we get back to that point, all these underclassmen won’t have a clue about how things are supposed to happen,’” Lucas recalled.

“If all of us leave … who understand how it should work and how it could work, and we leave behind the folks whose only experience is dysfunctionality, is the republic lost?”

This article was originally published on NBCNews.com

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