The 116th Congress will have the largest, most diverse incoming freshman class in a generation. But this milestone wasn’t achieved just because a bunch of incumbents lost. Well before November 6, more than 50 members of Congress voluntarily chose not to seek re-election and cleared the way for newcomers to compete for a lot of open seats.
Only once since 1930 has the number of voluntary departures been higher than it was this cycle. Members choosing to walk away from the legislative branch include eight Republican committee chairs, as well as House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI), who became the second speaker in a row to voluntarily give up the gavel of the most powerful position in the House.
Interviews with more than half a dozen departing members and some recently retired members revealed three major drivers behind the surge of retirements: a legislative process dominated by party leaders, the constant pressure to raise money, and political dysfunction plaguing Congress from top to bottom. The picture painted by these departing Republicans and Democrats lays bare a disturbing reality: Congress is fast becoming a place that repels, rather than attracts, public servants who want to get things done.
The policy-making process today is controlled by party leaders who determine legislative language and strategy. Wielding the gavel may allow a committee chair to set the committee’s agenda, but that agenda isn’t going anywhere unless the leadership allows it to.
Former Rep. Charlie Dent (R-PA), who stepped down from his House seat in May, agrees. “The leadership exercises a lot more control on chairmen than they did in the bygone era.”
Leaders also exercise a lot more control on the House floor by preventing members from offering amendments to bills. One retiring member, Rep. Rick Nolan (D-MN), said that debating a multitude of amendments helps members build alliances and find common ground. “That’s how members get to know each other, and what their real feelings are about issues,” Nolan said. “When the rules are structured, or closed, the work of the Congress becomes greatly simplified.”
Republicans also term-limit their committee chairs. While this rule gives more members a chance to wield a gavel, it rotates chairs out just as they’ve gained the experience they need to effectively lead. As Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-TX), the outgoing chair of the House Financial Services Committee, bluntly observed: “Are term limits playing a role in an exodus of chairmen, along with collective years of wisdom? Of course it is.”
Outgoing chairs may miss the prestige of leading a committee, but they likely won’t miss the fundraising requirements imposed upon them by party leaders. Both parties set fundraising quotas for their members and assess higher quotas for members in powerful positions.
The gavels on the most sought after committees now “cost” more than $1 million in party dues, according to Rep. Ken Buck (R-CO). These fundraising requirements come on top of the money members must raise for their own reelection campaigns.
Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY), who was first elected to Congress in 2012, has said that party leaders’ efforts to get him to pay his dues went so far as reminders being “stuffed in my pocket during votes” on the House floor.
Asked what happens when member don’t pay their party dues, retiring Rep. Jimmy Duncan (R-TN) bluntly said “You don’t get these chairmanships.”
Outgoing Rep. Lynn Jenkins (R-KS), likewise, acknowledged fundraising frustrations and even joked, “My mom had taught me not to talk a lot about myself and never ask strangers for money, and then, that’s all I’ve done for the last ten years.”
Many soon-to-be retirees also look forward to walking away from the hostile culture that pervades Capitol Hill.
Retiring Rep. Sam Johnson (R-TX) observed: “What I will miss least is the current polarization and common refusal to listen to or respect others’ ideas. It is possible to find common ground.”
Republican Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania said, “Washington became a lot more ideological” during his 13 years in Congress. “We have a number of members on both sides who get very dug in….They believe there will be a penalty or a punishment for seeking cooperation or compromise.”
Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R-NJ) seconded this view when announcing his retirement: “As some of my closest colleagues have also come to realize, those of us who came to Congress to change Washington for the better through good governance are now the outliers….Today a vocal and obstinate minority within both parties has hijacked good legislation in pursuit of no legislation.”
Yet many outgoing members stress the importance of bipartisanship in being an effective member of Congress.
“A lot of people think we all hate each other and that’s not true,” said Rep. Jimmy Duncan (R-TN). “If you try, you are able to get along with almost everyone on both sides.”
Outgoing Rep. Niki Tsongas (D-MA) said that when she came to Congress in 2007, even though House Democrats were in the majority, she was “committed to reaching across the aisle….I did that from day one. And I think then when we lost the majority, those that I had reached out to were willing to reach back across the aisle.”
She encouraged all incoming members of Congress to “arrive with that commitment.”
As members organize for the 116th Congress, they have an opportunity and the public backing to address some of the systemic problems driving members of Congress away from public service in droves. Now is the time for both rules reform or a joint committee on the functioning of Congress — solutions with backing from both Republican and Democratic lawmakers who share a commitment to getting things done.
Nick Penniman is the CEO of Issue One. Marian Currinder is a senior fellow with R Street Institute’s governance project.