Retirements underscore the difficulties of legislating amid partisan atmosphere

December 19, 2013

The retirements of three veteran House lawmakers announced this week serve as a reminder that the bitter partisanship that has infected the Capitol in recent years has made it increasingly difficult for legislators to actually legislate.

Within hours of each other, Reps. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.), Jim Matheson (D-Utah) and Tom Latham (R-Iowa) said Tuesday that they wouldn’t seek reelection in 2014. 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 to the Democratic Party. So while the departures don’t signal the end for moderates, they underscore the continued erosion of lawmakers who saw their main mission as making laws.

Neither Wolf, Matheson nor Latham cited the decline of comity or the historic lack of congressional productivity as reasons for leaving. They didn’t need to. Congress this year reached new lows in its popularity and productivity. That and the constant need to raise money while avoiding political missteps in the rancorous partisan atmosphere has left some seasoned legislators feeling daunted by the prospect of their next campaign.

Almost immediately, party leaders celebrated as they realized they might be able to poach Wolf’s, Matheson’s and Latham’s seats from one another. Rep. Steve Israel (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 Republicans. But Rep. Greg Walden (Ore.), who leads the National Republican Congressional Committee, said Matheson’s retirement should be “a warning signal to Democrats coast to coast.”

Of the three retirements, Latham’s may have been the most predictable. When Iowa lost a House seat after the 2010 Census and was forced to redraw its congressional map for the 2012 elections, his old congressional district, which 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 more liberal Des Moines.

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

“I’m in a great position to do a lot for the district as a senior member of the appropriations committee,” Latham said in a March 2012 interview with The Washington Post. Even as Washington was at war with itself over spending, Latham boasted that he could help steer money to the departments of Agriculture, Transportation and Housing and Urban Development — and to Iowa.

“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,” he said in the interview.

Latham won the seat, but by his own assessment things have gotten more difficult. President Obama was reelected 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.

Democrats see a prime pickup opportunity in Latham’s seat, where Obama defeated GOP candidate Mitt Romney by four points last year. They also see potential in Wolf’s Northern Virginia district, a diverse and affluent region, where Romney won by just one point last year and Obama prevailed by three points in 2008.

Matheson has long been a marked man, though especially since Romney, with his strong Utah connections, won the district by 37 points in 2012. McCain won it by only 15 points in 2008.

Both veteran appropriators, Latham and Wolf — who are serving their 10th and 17th terms, respectively — have seen their clout diminished by the rise of anti-spending, tea party-backed passions in Congress. And Matheson, a seven-term legislator, sits on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, an assignment that might create unwanted political pressure as the Obama administration reportedly prepares to take a series of executive actions next year to address climate change.

Confronted by 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 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. And Wolf’s generally centrist approach to governing makes him an anomaly in an increasingly strident Virginia Republican Party that lost every statewide race in last month’s elections .

Facing all of those challenges, the retirees signaled that they are eager to move on.

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.” Matheson told supporters via Facebook that “my duty to our state and our country will undoubtedly continue.”

Latham’s public life, however, appears to be over. In a message sent to supporters, he noted that he has spent more than half of his 39-year marriage away from home.

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

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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