Departing House Members Ask: ‘Why Am I Here?’

Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) at his office on Capitol Hill in Washington, on April 18, 2024. (Anna Rose Layden/The New York Times)
Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) at his office on Capitol Hill in Washington, on April 18, 2024. (Anna Rose Layden/The New York Times)
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

WASHINGTON — At some point during a routine seven-hour trip from his Oregon district to Washington, Rep. Earl Blumenauer, 75, a Democrat who has served in Congress for almost three decades, experienced a depressing epiphany.

“I distinctly recall crawling on yet another plane to come back for yet another vote that made absolutely no difference and was going absolutely nowhere,” he said in an interview. “And I had this singular experience of asking myself, ‘Why would you do this?’”

Blumenauer’s moment of truth was in fact far from singular. A total of 54 House members, or about one-eighth of the total body, will not be seeking another term this November.

Sign up for The Morning newsletter from the New York Times

As a matter of sheer numbers, the exodus is not history-making. What is striking are the names on the list. There are rising stars, seasoned legislators and committee chairs. But not a single bomb-thrower.

For three of the 54, the issue was forced: one by expulsion (George Santos, R-N.Y.) and two by being gerrymandered out of winnable districts (Reps. Wiley Nickel and Kathy Manning, both D-N.C.). Two others died (Donald M. Payne Jr., D-N.J., and A. Donald McEachin, D-Va.).

Another 18 members vacated their seats to seek a different elective office. That leaves 31 members — 19 Republicans and 12 Democrats, 20 of whom were interviewed for this article — who have decided to leave the House of their own volition, with no electoral pressure to do so.

“It’s a shocking number,” said one of them, Rep. Patrick T. McHenry, R-N.C., who was first elected to his seat two decades ago. Despite his status as chair of the House Financial Services Committee and one of the most influential Republicans in Congress, McHenry said that he could appreciate Blumenauer’s dire sentiments.

“The institution’s not functioning, the incentive structures are messed up and we’re not doing real legislating. So people are like, ‘Why am I here?’”

If anything, the malaise encompassing the House extends well beyond those who have chosen not to serve another term. “You look around that chamber, there’s just a look of despair,” said Brian Higgins, a Democrat who represented districts in western New York for 19 years before retiring in February to become the president of Shea’s Performing Arts Center in Buffalo. “I mean, I think a lot more members would be leaving if they had alternatives.”

The list of the 31 departed, or soon to be, is hardly a roll call of the walking dead. It includes Mike Gallagher, 40, of Wisconsin, who left Congress in April to join a venture capital firm, and Rep. Jake LaTurner, 36, of Kansas, both respected Republicans. Another exiting Republican is, like McHenry, a committee chair in her prime: Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington, who leads the powerful Committee on Energy and Commerce.

“When you’re losing people like Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Patrick McHenry, you’re losing your brain trust,” said Kevin McCarthy, who retired on Dec. 31 after being voted out of his post as House speaker.

Every one of the 20 members interviewed for this article spoke with pride of their tenure in Congress. Nearly all of them cited extenuating circumstances — a young family, a chance to start a new chapter in life, a desire for tranquil golden years — that prompted their departure. Still, with few exceptions, they described an experience of diminishing rewards and increasing hardships.

“What you want to see is the accomplishments matching the sacrifice,” LaTurner said. “When that’s out of kilter, it makes it a lot more difficult to justify staying.”

They depicted an institution now dominated by brawlers and attention-seekers, “like they’re all auditioning for a political reality show,” said Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, D-Md., who is retiring after 22 years.

Higgins of New York recalled that a formative moment occurred on the House floor in 2009, when a little-known Republican, Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina, interrupted President Barack Obama’s speech about health care to a joint session of Congress by yelling, “You lie!”

“Joe’s not a bad guy, by any means,” Higgins said. “But he’ll tell you his fundraising went through the roof right after that.”

The recognition that Wilson was onto something took awhile to sink in. But four years later, Congress had changed so much that Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, concluded that the advice he had sought from a predecessor who had left in 2003, Jim Hansen, was of little use.

“Everything he told me made no sense, and I realized that Congress was so different that he didn’t help me at all,” said Stewart, who left Congress last September. The difference, he said, was the inability of the Republican speaker at the time, John Boehner of Ohio, to discipline the raucous far-right exponents of the Tea Party movement who later became known as the House Freedom Caucus.

“There was nothing Speaker Boehner could do to influence the hard right,” Stewart said.

Still, governance in the Boehner era was not a dirty word, and the vast majority of new Republican members were receptive to it. “Maybe once a month Boehner would meet with the entire freshman class, take questions, give direction,” said Rep. Brad Wenstrup, R-Ohio, who was elected two years after the 2010 Tea Party class returned the House majority to the GOP.

But now, Wenstrup said, “I’m not sure if people now even accept the idea of being mentored.” He is retiring at the end of his term in early 2025.

One of the earliest members of the Freedom Caucus, Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C., was nicknamed “Hard Head” by Boehner for his unbudging fiscal conservatism.

But Republican leaders still saw promise in Duncan, who was later awarded a subcommittee chair on the Energy and Commerce committee. By 2021, under a program introduced during Boehner’s speakership, Duncan became the designated mentor of freshman Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga.

But Greene met with him only once, Duncan said in an interview, and seemed less interested in learning the ins and outs of Congress than in developing a social media following, about which he knew little. In any case, he said, he had grown weary of the prideful intransigence exhibited by his comrades on the right.

“I’ve told my colleagues in the Freedom Caucus many times, you need to learn how to take a win,” Duncan said. He has decided that this year will be his last in Congress.

Another Freedom Caucus member to toss in the towel, Rep. Ken Buck, R-Colo., packed up and left Capitol Hill for good in late March. In an interview in his House office cluttered with moving boxes, Buck spoke wistfully of how an institution he revered had been taken over by “social media stars who are not well equipped to handle the rigors of Congress.”

“You could send them to school for 10 years and they still wouldn’t be good at this job,” he added. “All they know is how to use social media to burn the place down.”

Buck, Duncan and Wenstrup each insisted that the Democrats had their share of extremist show ponies as well. In reply, several Democrats maintained that even if this were so, their leftist colleagues were not hellbent on chaos like their far-right counterparts.

One of the departing Democratic members, Rep. John Sarbanes of Maryland, recalled an incident in 2019 when several House Republicans, led by Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida and the majority leader, Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, barged into a classified facility where the House Committee on Intelligence was conducting an impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump.

“You realize at that moment how much an institution’s ability to function depends on members treating that institution with respect,” Sarbanes said. “And when you have these rabble-rousers coming in who are declaring that government serves no good purpose and they want to tear it to the ground, that’s a cancer inside the place.”

Sarbanes went on to describe how, in his view, the rabble-rousers have all but incapacitated Congress. “You show up on a Monday and are told you’ll be voting on four or five bills that week,” he said. “Then by Wednesday you’re hearing that a tiny group of legislators have held the place hostage. Those bills didn’t make it out of the Rules Committee and are off the calendar. And you’re told to go home.”

To date, the 118th Congress that began its work on Jan. 3, 2023, has enacted a total of 64 bills, less than one-fifth of the legislation that was passed by any of the previous four Congresses. Even that sluggish pace constituted a grind.

Members described once-routine House matters that are now fraught with melodrama, from passing bipartisan appropriations bills to electing a House speaker.

“The things that I’m most proud of that were the hardest to do were negotiating the debt ceiling, passing the National Defense Authorization Act and reauthorizing and reforming FISA,” LaTurner said, referring to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. With an arid chuckle, he added, “Those things would have been just normal business in the past.”

Many of the 2024 retirees echoed LaTurner’s sentiments. Few of them came to Washington expecting that performing rote tasks like keeping the government operating and maintaining America’s credit rating would amount to career highlights. Referring to this year’s bipartisan Senate immigration bill, which Speaker Mike Johnson has avoided bringing to the House floor for fear of angering the far right, Buck lamented, “We won’t deal with the tough issues. The border is a tough issue. The Senate passed a great starting point, and we just walked away.”

In addition to the increasingly joyless slog of governance, the job has become less rewarding in other ways. Since 2009, the salaries of both House and Senate members have been frozen at $174,000 — high pay for the average American but challenging for members maintaining residences in both Washington and their home districts. Aware of the low estimation in which the public holds Congress, they have repeatedly voted to deny themselves cost-of-living increases. “Sometimes you wonder if members should just wear sackcloth,” Sarbanes said.

Although none of the 20 people interviewed for this article would acknowledge that financial considerations played into their decision to retire, one of them, seven-term Rep. Larry Bucshon, R-Ind., said, “I think recruiting qualified people is getting more difficult and I do think you’re seeing some people leaving because of the pay situation.”

Another exiting member, Rep. Tony Cárdenas, D-Calif., admitted, “It weighs on us, it does. And you know, Congress shouldn’t be a place where only the wealthy can serve.”

Even as Congress has become less rewarding, it has become a more dangerous undertaking. Nearly everyone interviewed had received at least one death threat in recent years, some of which had resulted in arrests.

“It’s something you have to take into consideration nowadays, that if you’re going to run you’re going to face threats,’’ said Rep. Grace F. Napolitano, 87, D-Calif. “If it had been that way when I first ran in 1998, my family would have been against it.”

For House Democrats, the life-threatening Jan. 6, 2021, assault on the Capitol represents a nadir that has been difficult to move past. “I still experience trauma from Jan. 6,” said Rep. Ann McLane Kuster, D-N.H., who said she was leaving Congress because of the cavalier attitudes of some in the GOP about the day. “I feel as though it’s impacting my ability to work with my Republican colleagues,” she said.

In contrast, Stewart, the former Republican member from Utah, said Jan. 6 was not at all a factor in his decision to leave Congress. “Democrats are from Mars and Republicans are from Venus,” he said. “We fundamentally view the day differently. Honestly, it didn’t have an impact on my feelings about Congress or how I approach my job.”

Notwithstanding her decision, Kuster remains a member of the centrist New Democrat Coalition and had staked her six-term career in a purple district on being a politician who was willing to work across the aisle. Her views are common among the 20 interviewed, including many who named each other as legislators they were proud to have partnered with, like practitioners of an ancient ritual now facing extinction.

Most of them insisted that the calling remained a noble one that they would recommend to an ambitious niece or nephew, though not without caveats.

“If I’d grown up 30 years later, I don’t know that I would have made the decision I did,” said Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Mich., who in 2012 won the seat that had been held by his uncle, Dale Kildee, for the previous 35 years. “Because it’s different now. You have to brace yourself for a level of anger and personal disdain that was always a part of the political world, but never at this level.”

Kildee added that he hoped for a new generation of willing legislators.

Buck concurred. “It’s important not to turn the government over to the crazies,” he said.

c.2024 The New York Times Company