Rep. Tim Ryan walks down the House steps after a vote on March 11, 2021. Credit - Bill Clark—CQ-Roll Call/Getty Images
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Credit for honesty where it’s due: four months into this current Congress’ two-year term, a dozen members of the House are already dropping all pretense and saying they won’t be seeking another term in late 2022.
The early — and, honestly, stunning — confessionals come more quickly they have in recent years, when lawmakers have typically milked the will-she-or-won’t-she speculation at least into the election year in order to trade favors, raise money and maybe even pass some legacy legislation. The pace of exits suggest two distinct realities, but one central theme: the House is broken and the way Congress functions betrays much of anything passing recognition as productive.
Looking at the historical data, this is a bracing clip. At this point in 2019, only three lawmakers said they weren’t coming back. In 2015, the number was eight — and three of those were Democrats looking to move to the Senate. Now, it’s a full dozen, with half of them looking at other political gigs beyond the House. D.C. is all about the pursuit and preservation of power, and given the uncertainty coming in the next two years, a number of factors are pushing the House to purge.
For Republicans, the prospect of term limits on plum committees forced the issue. That was the case with Rep. Kevin Brady, the top Republican on the powerful Ways and Means Committee. He was looking at being term-limited as the top Republican voice there. And rather than return to rank-and-file status, he simply decided to walk. The limits on Republican power inside House committees have been long-debated inside the caucus since they were introduced in 1992, and helped Republicans’ Contract With America succeed in 1994. But such restrictions — although waivable, as was the case for future-House Speaker Paul Ryan in 2012 — prompted a third of Republican committee chairs to head to the exit for 2018. Or consider Republican Rep. Steve Stivers, who is set to resign from his seat this weekend to lead the Ohio Chamber of Commerce.
Among Democrats, the prospect of better gigs helped usher two of the five departing members to the door. Rep. Tim Ryan is mounting a race for Senate to follow Republican Rob Portman, who is retiring. Rep. Charlie Crist is looking to return to the Governor’s Office he last occupied when he was still a Republican. Others are just ready to move on from a lower chamber where a Democratic majority is far from certain come January 2023, given both voters’ views of Congress right now and likely redrawn district lines that aren’t expected to do Democrats many favors. Of the 99 state legislative chambers, Republicans control 61.
The inherent uncertainty that comes with the first elections following redistricting is a leading factor behind this exodus, strategists in both parties say. There’s no guarantee that any of the districts these House members serve will even exist come Election Day 2022. Ohio (hi, departing Tim Ryan) and Illinois (hey, exiting Cheri Bustos) are both losing seats. Ohio’s redistricting process will be the first under 2018 reforms passed to stop counties from being chopped up, but Republicans still control the state government and have a few loopholes they can use. In Illinois, Gov. J.B. Pritzker vowed to veto “unfair” maps, although there’s a lot of wiggle room there, too. But the writing is on the wall: Ryan’s Youngstown-based district twice flirted way too closely with Trump for comfort for Ohio Democrats, and Bustos’ district is basically an Iowa annex. Even in states that prohibit gerrymandering, there are still ways to tinker.
Some Democrats’ decision to leave is causing more panic within the party than others. Rep. Ann Fitzpatrick’s district is R+1, meaning it tilts Republican with a one-point advantage in The Cook Political Report’s Partisan Voting Index. Fitzpatrick’s skills and positioning made it winnable while wearing a blue jersey; last year, she carried the district by 10 points. Crist is from a borderline D+2 district, and he won by just six points. And Bustos is a D+3 district that she carried by only four. That trio alone — absent pick-up opportunities that Democrats are eyeing in districts of GOP lawmakers who voted against the most-recent stimulus bill — is keeping Democrats awake late at night.
Other districts of retirees or abandoneers are fairly safe, especially for the four lawmakers who are choosing not to finish their terms. Former Rep. Marcia Fudge left her Cleveland seat to become Housing and Urban Development Secretary in a D+32 district. Former Rep. Cedric Richmond gave up his New Orleans seat in a D+25 district to become a senior adviser to President Joe Biden.
Using new Census data, state legislatures and redistricting commissions will tinker with the borders before the midterms in pretty meaningful ways. No district in America is in 2022 going to look exactly like it looked in 2020; natural migration all but guarantees that the borders won’t trap the same 700,000 or so people in every district. But the sense of place doesn’t change that much. The politics of Chicago’s South Side will still be the same, no matter how the neighborhoods are sliced up.
That’s why these lawmakers’ choices to ditch incumbency so early in this term is alarming. It suggests the promise of prestige, a staff and political power in D.C. isn’t worth the headache that comes with a seat in the House. And that will only hurt both parties’ ability to recruit qualified successors for these roles.
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