The twilight of the congressional legislators

December 18, 2013

This item has been updated.

The retirements of three veteran House lawmakers announced this week serve as a reminder that bitter partisanship is making it all but impossible for veteran legislators to actually legislate.


Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) was first elected to Congress in 1980. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Within hours of each other, Reps. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), Jim Matheson (D-Utah) and Tom Latham (R-Iowa) said Tuesday that they wouldn't seek reelection. Some political observers suggested that the trio of retirements was a sign that the ideological center is slipping. But Latham is a reliable fiscal conservative, Wolf aligned himself with social conservatives and Matheson's voting record suggests he's closer to the GOP than Democrats. Their departures then don't signal the end for moderates, but rather the continued erosion of lawmakers who saw it as their main mission to make laws.

None of the three explicitly cited the decline of comity or the historic lack of congressional productivity as their reasons for leaving, unlike other recently departed legislators. But they didn't need to. Congress this year reached historic lows in its popularity and productivity, part of what is driving seasoned legislators to leave after determining that the constant need to raise money and avoid political missteps amid rancorous partisan warfare is too daunting.

Of the three retirees, Latham, a 10-term lawmaker, is the one that many believed might have left sooner. When Iowa lost a House seat and was forced to redraw its congressional map before the 2012 elections, he faced a big decision. His old congressional district that ran the length of Iowa's western border was split in half and divided into a reliably conservative district in the state's northwest corner and another packed with swing voters and encompassing Des Moines.

Latham chose to run against Rep. Leonard Boswell (D-Iowa) in the Des Moines-area seat instead of challenging Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) in a primary in the conservative region. At the time, Latham predicted that voters in his new district would prefer a lawmaker with nearly 20 years of seniority and close connections to House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), a longtime friend.

“I’m in a great position to do a lot for the district as a senior member of the appropriations committee," he said in a March 2012 interview with The Washington Post. He boasted during the exchange about how he could help steer money to the departments of Agriculture, Transportation and Housing and Urban Development -- and Iowa. “The only reason I’m doing this again is because I think we have to have people who will take tough votes, who will actually save the system for the future," he said in the interview. "If I didn’t think I had a chance to really change the direction in the next Congress with a new president, and a new majority in the Senate, it would be very difficult for me to run."

Latham defeated Boswell, but by his own measure, things have grown more difficult. President Obama is still in office and won Latham's district last year. Democrats still control the Senate and the House is now packed with younger, fiscally conservative Republicans with little appreciation for the appropriations process and Boehner's leadership.

Consider how quickly party leaders celebrated Tuesday as they realized they now might be able to poach Latham, Wolf and Matheson's seats from one another. Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee crowed that Latham and Wolf are "jumping ship" because voters are rejecting the "flawed priorities" of House Republicans. But Rep. Greg Walden, who leads the National Republican Congressional Committee, said Matheson's retirement should be "a warning signal to Democrats coast to coast."

Democrats see a prime pickup opportunity in Latham's seat, where Obama defeated GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney by four points last year and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) by six points in 2008. They also see potential with Wolf's Northern Virginia district, an exceedingly diverse and affluent region, where Romney won by just one point last year and Obama prevailed by three points in 2008.

Republicans, meanwhile, have long considered Matheson a marked man, especially since Romney won his district by a whopping 37 points in 2012 (McCain took it by 15 points in 2008).

Facing those political challenges, Latham, Wolf and Matheson would have enjoyed little time for legislating as their plum assignments might have created an even more tenuous situation.

Both veteran appropriators, Latham and Wolf – who has served 17 terms – have seen their clout diminished in recent years by tea party-backed colleagues who have forced years of deadline-driven spending battles between Congress and the White House. And Matheson, a seven-term legislator, sits on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, probably the most powerful panel remaining in the House, but an assignment that might have created unwanted political pressure as the Obama administration reportedly prepares to take a series of executive actions next year to address climate change.

Facing several well-funded GOP challengers in recent years, Matheson has sided with Republicans on a series of closely-watched votes, including a measure to hold Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. in contempt of Congress and dozens of attempts to roll back or repeal the Affordable Care Act.

Latham and Wolf also are at odds with a new generation of conservative activists now leading their state parties. Amid disagreements over the structure of the Iowa Republican Party, Latham only briefly appeared at its annual fundraising dinner in October and was booed by some in the crowd when organizers mentioned his name. And Wolf's generally centrist approach to governing makes him an anomaly among Virginia's more strident Republican leaders, who failed to hold on to the governorship in last month's elections.

Facing all of those challenges, all three lawmakers signaled that they are eager to do other things.

Like other lawmakers who have stepped down in recent years, Wolf and Matheson hinted they might seek other ways to serve the public. Wolf said he would "focus my future work on human rights and religious freedom – both domestic and international – as well as matters of the culture and the American family." And Matheson told supporters via Facebook that "my time in the House should not be the sum total of my service" and that "my duty to our state and our country will undoubtedly continue."

But Latham's public life appears to be over. In a message sent to supporters, he noted that over the course of his 39-year marriage, "I have spent half of it on the road building a family business and the other half serving in the United States Congress."

"It is never a perfect time or a right time to step aside," Latham. "But for me, this is the time."

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post incorrectly said that Matheson voted for the House GOP-passed Farm Bill last summer.

Ed O’Keefe is a congressional reporter with The Washington Post and covered the 2008 and 2012 presidential and congressional elections.
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Sean Sullivan · December 18, 2013