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As Congress struggles, many members bail on re-election plans

Members of Congress aren't retiring because they're worried about losing, they're retiring because they're worried about staying in a dysfunctional place.


If it seemed as if there was a sudden flurry of congressional retirement announcements shortly before Thanksgiving, it wasn’t your imagination. The Wall Street Journal reported, “A dozen lawmakers — six Democrats and six Republicans — have said in November that they don’t plan to continue serving in Congress, the most in any month since at least 2011.”

Let’s note for context that November isn’t quite finished yet.

As of this minute, six incumbent U.S. senators have decided not to seek re-election next year — four Democrats and two Republicans — while there have been similar announcements from 35 U.S. House members — 22 Democrats and 13 Republicans.

Looking back at the election cycles from recent decades, those are high numbers given the fact that there are still 344 days between now and the next Election Day.

To be sure, there are all kinds of relevant details that are worth considering when reviewing the raw totals. Some members are retiring to private life, while others are giving up their seats to seek a different elected office. Some incumbents will almost certainly be replaced by members of their own party, while others have created competitive open-seat contests. (The aforementioned totals include Republican Rep. Bill Johnson of Ohio, who’ll soon resign to become president of Youngstown State University.)

What’s more, there’s no reason to believe the list won’t grow longer. Republican Rep. Bill Huizenga told Politico retirement chatter among his colleagues is more prevalent on Capitol Hill than at any point in his congressional career, which began 12 years ago. “People are talking about it — more openly than they ever talked about it,” the Michigan congressman said. “Like wondering, ‘Is this really worth my time and effort?’”

And when it comes to understanding the numbers, that seems to be the key detail: Many members are walking away in disgust. A New York Times report summarized it this way:

The wave of lawmakers across chambers and parties announcing they intend to leave Congress comes at a time of breathtaking dysfunction on Capitol Hill, primarily instigated by House Republicans. The House G.O.P. majority spent the past few months deposing its leader, waging a weekslong internal war to select a new speaker and struggling to keep federal funding flowing. Right-wing members have rejected any spending legislation that could become law and railed against their new leader for turning to Democrats, as his predecessor did, to avert a government shutdown.

After voters handed Republicans a narrow majority in the House, while expanding the Democratic majority in the Senate, most observers expected Congress to do very little. It now appears, however, that members are failing to clear a low bar: A HuffPost analysis concluded that this Congress is on track to be the least productive since 1932.

Before members left the Hill for their Thanksgiving break, Republican Rep. Chip Roy delivered impassioned remarks on the House floor. “One thing. I want my Republican colleagues to give me one thing — one! — that I can go campaign on and say we did,” the Texan said. “Anybody sitting in the complex, if you want to come down to the floor and come explain to me, one meaningful, significant thing the Republican majority has done.”

No one rushed to respond to his challenge.

Traditionally, there have been large numbers of retirements when members were worried about losing. This year, there have been large numbers of retirements because members are worried about staying in such a dysfunctional institution.