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Fed up, veteran members heading for the exits

The 118th Congress has been chaotic by any standard. There was the 15-ballot speaker marathon in January, a mini-banking meltdown in the spring, two near-government shutdowns, and an array of impeachment, censure and expulsion efforts. Plus, a speaker who got turned out of office, followed by an absolutely brutal fight to replace him that only succeeded on the fourth try. And we’re still only in the first session of this Congress, mind you.

All of that havoc is driving seasoned House members of both parties to the exits. In the last month alone, nearly a dozen members have announced they’re not running for reelection. Another one, Rep. Bill Johnson (R-Ohio), might soon join them.

“It’s hard to get anything done here,” Rep. Debbie Lesko (R-Ariz.) told us. “I served in the state legislature before here and I was chairman of the Ways and Means, chairman of Senate Appropriations, and we got big things done. In good times, this place is frustrating and hard to get things done, but now it’s especially hard.”

Nearly 30 Republicans and Democrats have so far announced they won’t stand for reelection. That number is expected to grow after members spend time evaluating their futures over the Thanksgiving break.

The lame-duck list ranges from longtime seasoned legislators to newer members who say they can get more meaningful work done elsewhere. Several members told us the dysfunction on Capitol Hill was their main motivation for retiring next year.

“It’s insane and it adds no value to my life,” said Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), who has been in Congress since 1996. “The things I care about, I can do better not here.”

Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colo.), a Freedom Caucus member who occasionally defies the far right, took a direct shot at his party’s agenda, calling it unserious. The Colorado Republican has publicly said for months he’s eyeing other opportunities in law and media.

“It’s stupid, you know,” Buck told us. “Impeach that person, censure that person, it’s all political, so members can go raise money and talk tough back home.”

The House retirements, of course, come amid perpetual conflict within the GOP that’s largely been driven by the hardline conservatives. Far-right lawmakers, more than ever, have been chaos agents upending the congressional agenda.

The House Freedom Caucus and its allies have derailed the appropriations process, demanding tens of billions of dollars in additional funding cuts and loading up bills with culture-war riders that even their own Senate GOP colleagues won’t support.

Now, even with the ascension of new Speaker Mike Johnson, an ally to the right flank, conservatives continue to bristle. Members of the House Freedom Caucus voted against Johnson’s two-step CR plan to avoid a government shutdown and killed the rule to bring the Commerce-Justice-Science funding bill to the floor this week alone.

Retiring Rep. Michael Burgess (R-Texas), who has served in the House since 2002, said he came in with a narrow majority that was able to fulfill basic duties such as passing annual spending bills.

“When I first got here, we had a six-vote majority,” Burgess said. “We passed the budget. We passed our appropriations bills under open rules. So it’s been a little frustrating that we don’t seem to be able to do that because I know we can deal with a small majority. We did it back in 2003.”

Meanwhile, Rep. Bob Good (R-Va.), a Freedom Caucus member who voted to oust former Speaker Kevin McCarthy, reveled in the departure of his colleagues.

“There are members who are part of the problem, not the solution, who’ve been here 20, 30 years and think that Washington’s working,” Good said. “If they don’t like our efforts to fix it for the American people, they shouldn’t stay in Congress.”

Of course, not all members said the House’s dysfunction and disarray were the deciding factors in their decision to leave Congress.

Rep. Victoria Spartz (R-Ind.), John Sarbanes (D-Md.) and Derek Kilmer (D-Wash.) all told us that it was simply a personal decision to step down now. Other members are running for a different office.

Mica Soellner

Presented by The Coalition to Project American Jobs

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Editorial photos provided by Getty Images. Political ads courtesy of AdImpact.