Number leaving Congress this term could be the highest in decades

Updated Nov 22, 2017
Ileana Ros-Lehtinen stands with her husband, Dexter Lehtinen, right, at the podium Monday, May 1, 2017, as she gives her final statement regarding her retirement from Congress. She says she is retiring at the end of her term next year. (Carl Juste/Miami Herald via AP)

So far this year, 41 U.S. House members — about 9 percent of the body — have announced they are resigning, retiring or seeking another office.

And there is still more than a year to go in the two-year term.

Congress always has turnover, but the pace established this year could mean the number leaving is the highest in decades. And while some have taken jobs in the new administration or announced they are running for another office, the number retiring is already at 15, with more expected before the filing deadlines for next year’s election.

“History tells us that there are going to be more retirements,” said Nathan Gonzales, editor and publisher of Inside Elections. “The question is what type of districts are they leaving behind and does that give the Democrats more opportunities to take over.”

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For Republicans, the departures are potentially worrisome: Many of the districts are considered safe, but it’s easier for a Democrat to win an open seat than win one held by a Republican running with all the advantages of incumbency.

And the midterms following a presidential election almost always benefit the party out of power. The party occupying the White House has lost seats in 18 of the last 21 midterm elections stretching back to Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Of the 41 members who have announced they are leaving or have left so far this term, 29 are Republicans.

No one reason

People leave their seats for a variety of reasons. When former House Speaker John Boehner left in October 2015, he made it clear he was tired of the intra-party tussles he was having with a group of conservative lawmakers led by Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Urbana. But other departures come because of different opportunities or even scandals.

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Four Republican House members took jobs in the Donald Trump administration. One became the Attorney General of California. One resigned after a sex scandal. And one — Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R–Utah — left for a job as a as a commentator on Fox News.

Columbus area Rep. Pat Tiberi, R-Genoa Twp., is also leaving for a different job. He’s been hired as president of the Ohio Business Roundtable and will leave his seat after the first of the year.

Gonzales said he counts Tiberi as an anomaly among the departures, not neatly categorized. Tiberi considered a bid against Sen. Sherrod Brown, but then opted not to. He ultimately chose to take the Business Roundtable job and return to Ohio.

“Now he’s against the culture of Washington when before he was trying to explore remaining in Washington,” Gonzales said.

Accelerating retirements

Eighteen lawmakers are seeking another office, according to the House Press Gallery. That includes Ohio Republican Rep. Jim Renacci, who is running for governor and will vacate his House seat at the end of his term.

His departure isn’t considered a retirement, but Tiberi’s is because he is leaving before his term is up.

Of the 15 retiring members, 11 have served seven or more terms. Tiberi fits the mold: He’s been in office since 2001.

Gonzales wonders if some of the retirements were influenced by the fear of 2018 midterms. The more experienced members, he said, may remember being in the minority before and may not relish the thought of repeating the experience.

“It’s easier to stand on principle and say ‘the next election doesn’t matter if I’m in the minority ’ if you’ve never served in the minority,” he said.

Some lawmakers have made their reasons for retirement clear, he said. Like Boehner before him, Rep. Charlie Dent, R–Pennsylvania, has been vocal about his frustrations with the more conservative members of his party. Others, such as Rep. Bob Goodlatte of Virginia, will be term-limited out of a chairmanship and “don’t want to go back to the minor leagues of not being a chairman.”

For his part, Tiberi insists he left because of the opportunity to continue public service and be closer to his family, including his four daughters and his ailing father. His mother died earlier this year — a difficult experience, he said, that made him want to be home.

Unexpected results

Kyle Kondik of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia said while some of the seats Republicans are leaving could be vulnerable — Dave Reichert of Washington, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen in Florida — many of the seats are considered safe for Republicans.

That includes Tiberi’s and Renacci’s, he said.

Of those two districts, Tiberi’s suburban Columbus seat may be the most difficult to gauge. While safely Republican in recent elections, no clear successor has emerged in that race.

Kondik said anything can happen when there is no incumbent in a race.

“Open seats can put seats in play that you wouldn’t otherwise expect,” he said, adding that Tiberi’s district — which includes some rural counties along with Delaware County and part of Franklin County — is “not really Trumpish.”

“The district should hold,” he said, “but I’ve seen some competitive special elections in unexpected places this year, so it’s worth watching.”