Back when Donald Trump was president, “I used to say cocktail hour in Washington began at 11:30 a.m.,” said Yarmuth, who serves as chairman of the House Budget Committee and also co-chairs the House bourbon caucus.
These days, Yarmuth has an easier time making it until afternoon. But the fragile state of American democracy has him “freaked out” and having to work alongside MAGA provocateur Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) on the Budget Committee has been dispiriting. “She’s a nutjob,” he says.
Meanwhile, resentments within Yarmuth’s party have reached collar-tugging temperatures. Democrats have spent the balance of President Biden’s first term fuming at Sens. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), who have used their positions at the choke point of the party’s narrow Senate majority to (thus far) thwart the passage of liberal policy proposals such as lowering the cost of prescription drugs, implementing a new paid family leave program and moving away from fossil fuels toward renewable energy.
The climate in the House, where Democrats also “enjoy” a slim majority, has also made tempers short. Recently, Yarmuth says he watched as Rep. John Garamendi, a moderate Democrat from California, and Rep. Mark Pocan, a liberal Democrat from Wisconsin, “nearly came to blows” over the party’s struggles to pass Biden’s agenda.
“John was basically telling Mark to get his head out of his ass,” Yarmuth said, paraphrasing. “He was saying, ‘You’re not accomplishing anything, you’re stupid.’ ”
(“It was a passing moment,” Garamendi told The Washington Post, saying that he and Pocan “remain very close friends.”)
Still, “it was scary,” said Yarmuth.
There are a couple of ways members of Congress can cope with a bad work environment. They can drink — Yarmuth has tried that one. They can also simply leave, which is what he’s trying next.
It’s not just him. Eight Democrats have chosen not to run for reelection in 2022, with more probably on the way. Announcements tend to pick up “usually after Thanksgiving and Christmas,” says Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.), who made her own retirement announcement in April.
Bustos told The Post she can’t even count on her two hands the number of her colleagues who have said they wished they were retiring. Yarmuth said he knows of members quietly planning their exits — and “assumes” Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi might be one of them. (“She hasn’t said anything to anyone,” he added. In a statement to The Post, Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill neither confirmed nor denied Yarmuth’s assumption, saying simply: “The Speaker is not on a shift. The Speaker is on a mission.”)
What to make of the impending Democratic departures? In some ways, it’s part of a natural cycle. There are retirements in every session, usually around 22 of them when you include both parties. (Currently there are four Republicans who say they won’t be running again.) Some members had planned on retiring after 2016 but put it off because of Trump’s win. And many of them are from districts that will safely remain in Democratic hands.
Still, members of Congress — especially speakers, or in Yarmuth's case, chairmen of powerful committees— don't usually leave their jobs unless they are pushed out by voters, or feel like they are about to be relegated to permanent minority status. Like a Waffle House closing ahead of a hurricane, the Retiree Index can be a sign for Congress watchers — along with ominous polling and a surprise loss in what was supposed to be a safe election (in this case, Democrat Terry McAuliffe's defeat in the Virginia governor's race) — that the majority is about to get walloped. Some members may be getting out before their work situations go from intense to intolerable.
Not that any of the retiring Democrats were willing to go there. Those who spoke to The Post said they want to spend more time with their families, not that they were eager to spend less time with their fellow lawmakers. In any case, the returns on being a sitting Democrat in Congress seem poised to diminish in a hurry; those who stay on may soon pine for screaming matches over what bills to pass.
“If what happened in Virginia were to play out nationally we would lose 44 seats,” Bustos said, citing a tweet from David Wasserman, a senior editor at the Cook Political Report and an expert on congressional elections. “And that’s even before redistricting.”
“The prospect of being in the minority with Kevin McCarthy as speaker of the House and Jason Smith as chairman of the Budget Committee — God, I could go down the list — is horrible,” said Yarmuth, a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.
A Democratic minority might feel especially helpless — even with one of their own in the White House. Democrats fear a Republican Congress would continue to court pro-Trump extremists, indulge paranoid theories about the former president’s political adversaries and tolerate attacks on democratic norms. Certainly, there would be no more hope of passing a federal voting-rights bill, a top priority for Democrats.
“Democracy isn’t exactly on the march,” said Rep. David E. Price (D-N.C.) who is retiring next year after three nonconsecutive decades of service.
As co-chairman of the House Democracy Partnership, Price has spent a lot of time working with other countries to help promote effective government. In recent years, the moral high ground has gotten a bit shaky. In 2019, he spent a few days in Ukraine, meeting with leaders of the country. At his elbow for most of that visit: U.S. Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, who (unbeknown to Price) was soon to be a witness in the first impeachment trial of Trump.
With all that’s happened since then — the election falsehoods, the Jan. 6 insurrection, the second impeachment and acquittal — “Trumpism prevailing” and Republicans retaking control of Congress is “a very alarming prospect for the country,” Price told The Post.
With so much hanging in the balance, why leave?
“It’s not very complicated for me,” said Price, who turned 81 in August. “I’m not getting any younger.”
“I’ll be 75 when my term ends,” said Yarmuth. “I don’t know how much time I have left.”
“My wife, Susan, and I have been empty-nesters for quite a while now,” said Rep. Mike Doyle, 68, a retiring Democrat from Pittsburgh. “I’m down here four days a week, and she’s back in Pittsburgh by herself. So we’ve been planning this exit. Susan has been planning it a lot earlier than I’ve been planning it.”
Price, Yarmuth and Doyle all considered retiring after the 2017-2019 term to spend more time with their families, assuming their farewells would coincide with a Hillary Clinton presidency.
“At that point I would have felt confident about the way things were going,” Yarmuth said. Also: “It didn’t look like there was any prospect of being in the governing majority.”
When Trump won, they decided to stick around to fight. Yarmuth says he’s glad he did. As budget chairman, he’s getting his name on one, possibly two, of the most expensive spending bills in the history of this country. And so, once again with little prospect of being the majority, the decision to go out on top is easy.
It helps that he and Price leave behind safe blue seats for new members with fresh legs. The same cannot be said for Bustos, the fifth-term moderate who hails from Republican-leaning turf on the Illinois side of the Quad Cities and was one of only seven Democrats to win in a district that went for Trump last election. She, too, feels the urgency of this political moment: “Democracy is on the line,” she told The Post. “We have to stay and fight.” And yet her resignation means forfeiting any advantage she might have as an incumbent as Democrats try to hang on to her seat in 2022.
“I don’t think I’m the only one who can win it,” Bustos said, waving away the notion that her retirement could make Democrats even more vulnerable than they already are. “I think you’re pretty full of yourself if you think that.”
In 2019, on the heels of the Democrats’ reconquest of the House, the party elected Bustos to lead the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee on the promise that she could help her party maintain, or even grow, its majority because she knew how to win over Trump voters.
Then came the coronavirus. Then came the murder of George Floyd and the ubiquitous protests against police brutality. Political energy flowed to the Democrats’ activist wing, where there were passionate discussions about the persistence of racism and the need to shake things up at the systemic level.
The lurch leftward put Bustos, 60, in a hard spot with all those middle-of-the-road voters she was supposed to be winning over.
“I got accused of being for defunding the police, and I’m married to the sheriff of our county,” she said. “I never said it, don’t believe it. But I got accused of that and it stuck.”
She is leaving Congress, among other reasons, because she just doesn’t like the job anymore.
“It’s important for me to love what I do,” she said. “The last two years were really, really hard.”
The coming years could be harder. Even as Democrats begin to notch some legislative accomplishments — such as this month's long-awaited bipartisan infrastructure bill, which will provide a trillion dollars for roads and bridges, broadband access, clean energy and public works — they remain haunted by a sense of inevitability about 2022.
The pandemic has persisted, as have complex disruptions to the global supply chain and the U.S. labor market that have confused and irritated consumers. Inflation is up, Biden’s popularity is down and monthly jobs reports have been up and down (currently: up). This volatility does not bode well for the party in power, especially one elected to bring a sense of calm. Much can change before next November, of course, but Democrats still will be contending with the possibility of newly gerrymandered districts, plus the drag first-term presidents tend to have on their party in the midterms.
In theory, the House retirees would like to believe voters would be so turned off by the Republican Party’s conduct that Democrats could hold the line.
And yet . . .
“You feel sometimes like it’s almost independent of their performance,” Price said of how voters evaluate the GOP.
The retiring Democrats do have some notes on their own colleagues’ performances to date.
“Where did we get the idea that, ‘If I don’t get my way, I bring the house down’?” said Price, who worries about his party’s ability to compromise.
Bustos called the “internal fighting” in their party “so counterproductive.”
Doyle lamented the obsession with social media. He thinks it has coarsened discourse in the Capitol.
Yarmuth said there are members of his party who “seem to be totally occupied with brand management.”
“That’s frustrating,” he said, “for someone who came here because he was interested in the legislative process.”
He’s leaving, eight terms later, as someone who is not uninterested in having a drink in the middle of the day, whether his party is in power or not.
“It’s my brand,” he said.
Yarmuth said he hopes he’ll be remembered as more than the whiskey caucus chairman with the well-stocked liquor cabinet, but also a lawmaker who helped get things done in Congress. That includes March’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan that sent direct payments and unemployment benefits to people in a bid to stimulate the pandemic economy; and may eventually include another raft of Democratic spending in a reconciliation bill later this year.
Alas, matters of memory, history and legacy will not be his to decide. There is only so much a sitting congressman can control, let alone a retired one.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Rep. Cheri Bustos is in her fourth term in Congress. She is in her fifth term. This version has been updated.