Nov 26, 2023 - Politics & Policy

Lawmakers are ditching Congress at a record pace

Data: Ballotpedia; Chart: Axios Visuals
Data: Ballotpedia; Chart: Axios Visuals

Lawmakers are fleeing Congress at a record clip, with 13 senators and representatives announcing this month they won't seek re-election — the highest number in more than a decade, according to Ballotpedia.

Why it matters: Rancor and recriminations from the House speaker's battle, a surge in partisan censures and impeachments and yet another government shutdown threat have created a perfect storm for retirements.

State of play: The routine infighting and childish behavior — insults like "p***y" and "smurf" were exchanged on Capitol Hill this month — has exhausted some lawmakers. But the exits are also driven by ambition.

  • On the Democratic side, nine House members are leaving to run for the Senate. Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.) announced over the weekend that he won't be seeking re-election after he launched a long-shot bid for the presidency.
  • Age and health concerns are also contributing: The 118th Congress began the year with the oldest Senate in history, and 79% of Americans now support age limits for elected officials.

What we're watching: Seven senators and 31 House members in total have announced they'll be leaving.

  • The vacated seats offer Republicans potential pickup opportunities in the House and Senate next year — and could open the door for more partisan lawmakers on both sides.
  • Apart from Rep. George Santos (R-N.Y.), all of the House GOP departures are from reliably red districts. Several districts being left by Democrats are competitive.
  • "Swing-seat Democrats are racing for the exits and making their party's climb out of the minority even steeper," Jack Pandol, a spokesperson for the National Republican Congressional Committee, told Axios.
  • "It's no wonder Republicans are running for the retirement exits given the chaos and dysfunction dominating their caucus," said Viet Shelton, a spokesperson for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Between the lines: One potential consequence of this wave of retirements could be an uptick in Republicans who embrace former President Trump's MAGA movement and bring a burn-it-all-down mentality to Washington.

  • "What's very pronounced for 2024 is we're seeing a raft of retirements on the part of more institutionalist members," said Cook Political Report's David Wasserman. "I think that list on the Republican side will grow in the next month."
  • There could be a similar dynamic in some of seats being vacated by Democrats, as progressives have used open seats in the past to defeat centrist candidates in primaries and grow their numbers in Congress.

The big picture: Lawmakers told Axios that the uptick in departures is a perfect storm of recent chaos, longstanding frustrations and expected retirements.

  • "It seems like the norms are gone. Any kind of respect for the institution is gone. Any kind of obligation to be truthful is the exception" under GOP control, said Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.), who also cited a feeling that Congress "is not the optimal place to do good and make change."
  • The speaker vacancy and the 10 straight weeks in session happened to crest during retirement season, a senior House Democrat noted, but "if anybody was on the fence, the last 10 weeks could knock you off that fence pretty easily."
  • "Some are naturally leaving, but others are simply tired," said a House Republican, who also cited the "national environment" as a factor: "Divided nation. Bitter partisanship. Performance politics. No desire in governing."

Driving the news: Before the Thanksgiving holiday, Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) and Rep. Bill Johnson (R-Ohio) became the 10th and 11th members to announce their departures from the House this year. Phillips then became the 12th.

  • The month began with Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colo.) and Kay Granger (R-Texas) — two Republicans who voted against Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) for speaker — announcing they weren't planning on returning.
  • In the Senate, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) became the seventh senator not to run for re-election with his November announcement. Manchin would rather flirt with a presidential bid than face voters in a state Trump won by 39 percentage points.

Zoom out: In previous cycles, an exodus of lawmakers from one party has been an indicator of low expectations for retaining the majority — especially in the House.

  • In 2018, ahead of a "blue wave" midterm election in which Democrats picked up 41 House seats and took the majority, only 18 Democrats retired — compared with 37 Republicans.
  • Leading up to the 2022 midterms, which polls indicated could be disastrous for President Biden's party, 32 Democrats decided to leave, compared with 23 Republicans. Although Republicans won control of the House, the expected "red wave" did not materialize.

The bottom line: A senior House Democrat noted that this historically chaotic congressional session comes after Democrats enjoyed a "brief, shining moment for two years" in which they held both Congress and the White House and managed to pass several major pieces of legislation.

  • Now, the lawmaker said, "it doesn't feel like it's going to be a place that will be as productive in the near term."
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