Political analysts are always quick to impute motives to the career decisions of politicians, and Capitol Hill observers are having field day with the recent retirement announcements of top Democrats John Dingell, George Miller, and Henry Waxman. Predictably, commentators interpret such decisions from an institutional perspective that emphasizes the impact on Congress. More specifically, they conclude that the decisions were predicated on the Members’ estimation of the likelihood of Democrats regaining the House majority this November.
Republicans also are quick to interpret retirement decisions in optimistic electoral terms. “The House Democrats don’t think they’re going to be wielding the gavels,” chortled Rep. Greg Walden (R-OR), who chairs the Republican Congressional Committee. Walden and other Democratic doomsayers conveniently overlook the fact that half of those retiring from the House in November are Republicans, including former chairmen and other senior Members like Spencer Bachus, Buck McKeon, Doc Hastings and Frank Wolf.
My point is not so much to predict what will happen this coming Election Day – winning back control is always tough and the sixth year of a presidency presents special challenges – but to point out that decisions to run or retire are more often motivated by personal timetables and agendas than by trying to read political tea leaves eight months down the road. Two months is a lifetime in politics. I remember telling a Republican friend in the fall of 1994 that he was about to become the majority and he was shocked; similarly, until the Member scandals hit in mid-2006, the chances of Democrats taking back the House were far from certain, even with the 6th year curse and President Bush’s helpful proposal to privatize Social Security.
Making the decision to retire can be a tough one even for people who have spent decades in the turmoil of Capitol Hill. Leaving the familiarity and support structure of the House is a very challenging decision (I know because I did it a year ago after 38 years, albeit as staff, not a Member). For veterans like Dingell, Miller and Waxman, who will be highly valued in the private or non-profit sector, the specter of losing that familiarity must still be daunting. They have spent their entire lives in electoral office and currently rank 1, 29, and 30 in terms of historical longevity out of 10,156 men and women who have ever served in the House. Being a senior Member of Congress isn’t just a job; it is a big part of who you are and how you conceptualize every aspect of your life, and I don’t mean the glory and prestige, of which there is surprisingly little, especially after decades.
Sure, it is gratifying to have the room applaud when you are introduced, to have audiences rapt with attention as you describe the intricacies of the budget process, and to grill uncooperative witnesses at hearings and write laws on issues of great significance. But the novelty and glamor quickly wears off , while the job, especially in a contentious political environment, remains filled with stress and uncompromising personal demands.
Disapproving constituents often ask about Members’ limousines or other amenities, and many are disbelieving of the lack of luxury that goes with public office. Members face the same personal and financial burdens as regular citizens whether it be the costs of college and child care, or the difficulties of scheduling family time. Many worry about the financial sacrifices their families are making, if not now then in retirement, so that they can pursue a very gratifying career that while comfortable, is unlikely to make one wealthy. Most Members are working around the clock in Washington and their districts, with incessant demands for personal appearances, meetings and fundraising. When district appearances require weekly transcontinental flights (as Miller has undertaken every week for 40 years) or plane changes in unpredictable hubs with long car rides afterwards, the commute is brutal. And then the town hall meetings start.
Now, no one needs to feel sorry for Members of Congress; they chose the jobs, and they can leave anytime they want with plenty of people anxious to walk into the meat grinder that is House politics. So it should not be surprising when some who have enjoyed decades of achievement, while enduring decades of stress, decide to explore other options while there is time to do so. Dingell declared he didn’t “want people to say I stayed too long,” and at age 87 with 58 years in the House under his belt, he is probably pushing that rationale to the limit. Waxman, who will be 75 when he departs, decided, “if there is a time for me to move on to another chapter in my life, I think this is the time to do it.” And Miller, who arrived with Waxman in 1975, says, “I look forward to one last year in Congress fighting the good fight and then working in new venues on the issues that have inspired me.
With the exception of Dingell, who termed serving in the current House “obnoxious,” (while nevertheless endorsing his wife, Deborah, to replace him), those who are departing have been remarkably uncritical of the institution (although understandably disapproving of the current, dysfunctional management). Among the former chairmen, all enjoyed lengthy periods in the majority as well as in the minority; all put their names on historic (and bipartisan) legislation; all know that politics runs in cycles that are both favorable and frustrating. Sure, if they were sitting in the big chair with gavel in hand, they might not walk off; but deciding now to leave, with the inevitable uncertainty about the majority next January but no doubt about the sacrifices and stresses of two more years in the job, is not the same as writing off the party’s chances eight months out.
What undoubtedly will suffer is institutional memory, particularly the recollection of the traditional, orderly legislative process where subcommittees and committees actually met, conducted serious hearings, drafted and marked up legislation that predictably went to the floor, and where House-Senate conference committees resolved differences – the quaint old textbook flow chart of legislation, long since consigned to piles of undistributed official “How Our Laws Are Made” pamphlets. That process has largely vaporized over the past 20 years as the closeness of party margins, the existence of intra-party schisms, the chronic fight for control, and the emergence of the perpetual campaign have necessitated tighter discipline and more strategic maneuvering by the leadership on both sides. Today, what political scientist Barbara Sinclair once termed “unorthodox lawmaking” has become the new normal, and many of those who will serve in the 114th Congress will never have known anything different in Washington. David Goldston, a former skilled Republican staffer now works at the Natural Resources Defense Council (and doesn’t that make you sit up straight?) laments for all of us, “Congress is increasingly left with people who not only don’t know how to do those things; they don’t know that they can be done.”
“I was never in awe of the ‘indispensable man’ theory,” George Miller recently told a reporter, and one of the other retiring Members – not one of those I have mentioned – recently told me that the only truly indispensable Democrat is Leader Nancy Pelosi, whose skills at managing the diverse Democratic Caucus and securing funds to run competitive races is simply unparalleled. And she recently announced she is running again. Those who might think she is unconvinced of her ability to pull of an electoral victory in November, that she might simply be going through the motions, don’t understand her unquenchable dedication to her mission: money, message and mobilization. If and when she resigns herself to another two years in the minority – and don’t hold your breath waiting for that – the pundits will have the material they need to conclude Democrats are faltering. But when Members decide that after 40 years, or 58 or similarly extended service they would like to just do something else, to escape the pressure cooker, regardless of the possible outcome on Election Day (and with reasonable expectations their successors will also be Democrats), I am inclined to take them at their words, and wish them well. They’ve earned it.