Friday, July 19, 2024

‘Increasingly chaotic’: Why House Republicans are heading for the exits

‘Increasingly chaotic’: Why House Republicans are heading for the exits

House Majority Leader Steve Scalise thought he had a good argument for Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.).

The Wisconsin Republican had announced he was going to leave Congress, one of 21 Republicans who have said they are headed for the exits this year. But three Republicans who had previously announced their intention to leave had reconsidered and were now going to stay. Scalise (R-La.) wanted to emphasize that momentum to Gallagher, hoping the young rising star might reconsider.

“I said, ‘You know, it’s not too late for you.’ We joked about that,” Scalise recalled in an interview. “I’m not going to give up working on him.”

The sell hasn’t worked yet. Gallagher, 40, is set to retire earlier than previously expected, leaving the House in two weeks with just a one-vote majority.

The tumultuous year in a slim-majority hasn’t necessarily pushed departing Republicans to seek higher office or pursue other opportunities away from Capitol Hill. But it reaffirmed to most that they made the right call to leave, acknowledging the House has become more partisan and thus, it’s more difficult to pass impactful legislation than when many were first elected.

The decision to step back is yet another sign of the broader drop in morale within the GOP conference. Many Republican lawmakers have largely accepted that their inability to govern is a predicament of their own making. They acknowledge that overcoming their legislative impasse relies on not just keeping control of the House in November, but growing their ranks significantly to neutralize the handful of hard-liners who wield influence by taking advantage of the narrow margins. But many also continue to say privately what few have acknowledged publicly: Republicans believe they are likely to lose the majority.

And members are also worried that some lawmakers who have already decided to leave will consider resigning early, threatening Republicans’ current majority. Former congressman Ken Buck (R-Colo.), who resigned after condemning how unserious his party has become, has hinted that several additional colleagues are mulling leaving before the new year.

“This is a dysfunctional place and I’m not making an observation that others haven’t made,” Buck said.

Forty-three lawmakers, almost evenly split between both parties, won’t return to the House next year. While the number of retirements is on par with previous years, examining exactly who and how quickly Republicans are retiring tells a more complex story.

Five of 21 retiring Republicans will have resigned before the end of the term. Four GOP committee chairs are leaving, but Republicans were particularly shocked at the announced departures of Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) and Gallagher, who are not term-limited from continuing to oversee their committees. Eight lawmakers are retiring from the coveted Energy and Commerce Committee and eight subcommittee chairs are leaving. Four former members of a different GOP leadership era also have called it quits: former speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), his trusted deputy Rep. Patrick T. McHenry (R-N.C.), former deputy whip Drew Ferguson (R-Ga.), and McMorris Rodgers, who previously served as conference chair.

Following the historic ouster of McCarthy last year and the subsequent difficulty governing, several lawmakers and aides familiar with their boss’s decision — who like others spoke on the condition anonymity to freely discuss personal plans — seriously considered retiring. But what kept most of these more-pragmatic Republicans from pulling the trigger was the possibility that their absence could open up the seat to a candidate more willing to stonewall than govern.

In an interview with conservative commentator Charlie Kirk last week, Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) acknowledged the “big challenge right now is keeping the team together” and that early resignations don’t help Republicans in their mission “to save the country.”

“Without a Republican majority, we have no hope in doing that,” Johnson said. “We’ve got to be ready to govern, and we’re going to turn this mess around 180 degrees, but we’ve got to get through this difficult valley to get to that other side.”

The deep animosity and personal disdain between members following McCarthy’s ouster played a role in Rep. Debbie Lesko’s (R-Ariz.) decision to leave. Lesko announced her retirement in the middle of the three-week fight to elect Johnson, citing a desire to spend more time with family. But she added in her statement what many Republicans have echoed: “Right now, Washington, D.C. is broken; it is hard to get anything done.”

Rep. Greg Pence (R-Ind.) pointed to the “chaotic schedules” getting in the way of working in his district bordering Indianapolis. Like many retirees, Pence announced in January he wouldn’t seek reelection after spending the holidays weighing the decision with family members, who became the main incentive for him to leave. How his colleagues had behaved in the months prior “didn’t incentivize” him to stay, he said.

Rep. Kelly Armstrong (R-N.D.), who was elected in 2018 and has decided to run for governor, stressed that he’s never known “what normal is in Congress” after experiencing two impeachments against President Donald Trump, the coronavirus pandemic, and the Jan. 6 insurrection. Gallagher, who was elected two years before Armstrong, echoed the sentiment, saying while “Congress is getting increasingly chaotic” it has “been pretty steadily chaotic during my eight years.”

Gallagher had always thought about serving eight years, a threshold he was just shy of when he and his wife decided that his time would be best spent growing their family. In an interview, the Wisconsin Republican said he also weighed whether he would make a grander impact on the issues he cares about by continuing on the Hill versus the private sector.

“I’ve seen people stay too long and make this their career. I didn’t want that,” he said. “It was like the Ghost of Christmas Future for me.”

Gallagher had decided to retire long before joining Buck and Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.) in voting against impeaching Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, warning that impeaching the first Cabinet secretary in 150 years would open “Pandora’s box.”

He had already informed leadership by then that he wanted to resign early, working with them to do so by a certain date that would allow for a special election but not before the November election. Gallagher said he liked “going out on the idea of a high note,” ending his career on the Hill by chairing the House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party and spearheading the effort to pass a bill limiting the social media platform TikTok’s influence in the U.S.

Increased intraparty tensions did influence Buck to resign and subsequently retire early last month. Many of his colleagues, however, blame him for contributing to the instability. The five-term congressman voted to oust McCarthy, arguing that the former speaker “didn’t keep his word” on working to significantly curtail spending. Buck ran for office in the tea party era when conservatives were passionate about reigning in spending and he believes the GOP has turned away from realistically trying to achieve those goals to instead focus on defending Trump and scoring political points.

“I think that the populist wave has eroded the conservative values that I had when I came to this place,” Buck said. “Now, we’re impeaching people like it’s some kind of carnival and the Constitution is just a thing of the past to the very same people who were tea party patriots 10 to 12 years ago.”

Unlike members of the House Freedom Caucus — which Buck belonged to until they voted to kick him out last month — the Coloradan argued that pushing for ideologically pure legislation thwarts Republicans’ ability to actually land conservative wins, because “you have to have consensus in this building.” Buck said he has been most successful passing bipartisan legislation to reform how corporations deal with sexual assault and harassment claims and raising awareness on big-tech antitrust legislation, calling it “ironic” that he “got a lot more good work done with the Democrats in charge than House Republicans in charge.”

Rep. Brad Wenstrup (R-Ohio), a six-term congressman who decided last term to retire this Congress so he could spend more time with his two young children, was quick to point out that Republicans have been able to govern, though admittedly with the help of Democrats. He pointed to a tax bill the House recently passed, which received overwhelming bipartisan support in the Ways and Means Committee he serves on. When it passed the committee, he turned to colleagues and said, “You know what, today, I think we did what [President Ronald] Reagan talked about, which was if I can get 80 percent of what I want, I’ll keep fighting for the other 20 later.”

“I think that mentality is lost on a lot of people serving in Congress today,” he said.

That desire to work together, whether within a majority party or across the aisle, is what Rep. Larry Buschon (R-Ind.) said contributes to Congress being “misunderstood” by voters from both parties. He and several other retirees who have served for at least a decade said that Congress was built to make incremental changes, but that lawmakers often promise immediate, large-scale reforms to voters in an effort to get elected. Buschon noted that the divisions among Americans is reflected in the members sent to serve, but it’s incumbent on members to inform their constituents about what Congress can do for them incrementally rather than rally the base by overpromising.

“What I tell my constituents is … the government is a marathon, not a sprint. If you follow Congress closely, you will see incremental change. But it takes time because we’re trying to build consensus,” he said in an interview. “I think ultimately, the American people are going to hurt to the point where people that don’t want to accomplish things are gonna get voted out.”

But members of the far-right flank consider some of those retiring as traitors abandoning the fight. At a recent reelection rally for Freedom Caucus Chair Bob Good (R-Va.) in Scottsville, Va., Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) told voters to stop sending establishment politicians who are only “looking for the next job in Washington, D.C.” when they’re elected — a jab at retiring lawmakers who may end up working at lobbying firms or other influential Washington mainstays.

Those retiring do not necessarily blame hard-liners for the inability to achieve all the goals they wanted, from Buschon who hoped to lower the cost of health care and further address maternal mortality rates to Gallagher and Wenstrup both wishing more could have been done to return power from the executive back to Congress and states. All are looking forward to helping their successors establish themselves on the Hill, with Pence hoping his “stays in touch with their constituents — and not just promote themselves,” a dig at hard-liners in the far-right flank.

While the retirees mull their future, former congressman Chris Stewart (R-Utah), who retired last year to care for his ailing wife, had some words to impart to them when he returned to address the Congressional Gold Medal recipients last month.

“I want you to know: There’s not been a single morning that I woke up and thought, ‘Man, I wish I was back in Congress,’” he said to laughter.

Theodoric Meyer contributed to this report.

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