The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A tenth of the House plans to retire — but not all out of fear of losing

The doors to the U.S. Capitol are opened ahead of the inauguration of President Biden in D.C. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
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Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) has not been in the House for long (at least by congressional standards) but she has a very clear sense of the institution. It is, she told the New Yorker’s David Remnick in a recent interview, a sheet show — though of course she didn’t say “sheet.”

“It’s scandalizing, every single day,” she continued. “What is surprising to me is how it never stops being scandalizing.”

You probably aren’t surprised by this. Fewer than 1 in 5 Americans approve of the job Congress is doing, but even that doesn’t really capture the general sentiment. Congress seems like a miserable place where attempts to effect legislation are quickly drowned in rancor and neutered by intransigence. What’s amazing, really, is that anyone wants to go there in the first place.

This year, a lot of people are deciding to leave. As of writing, 43 of the chamber’s 434 current members are planning on bailing, a full 10 percent of the body. This isn’t a record by any stretch, but it is a lot relative to past cycles. And while it seems like an obvious reason for leaving would be “it’s a nightmarish sheet show,” the actual rationales are a bit more disparate.

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To illustrate this point, let’s look at the House as a whole. Below, I’ve made an admittedly complicated-looking graph that shows both those legislators who are retiring (large circles, bright colors) and those who are not (small circles, faded in color). The retirees are categorized in different ways, but we’ll get to those.

Notice that the dots are positioned on two axes. From bottom to top is the legislator’s career ideology, as measured by VoteView. From left to right, the legislator’s district’s vote margin in 2020. For dots at the end of arrows, the dots indicate the post-redistricting margin of the district in which the legislator now lives.

So at upper right are Republicans: very conservative and representing districts that backed Donald Trump in 2020. At lower left, liberal Democrats from districts that supported President Biden.

What you’ll notice first is that the Democratic retirees in particular are more clustered closer to the center of the graph — meaning they are more moderate legislators from more moderate districts. This is what we’d expect: Legislators from purple districts would be more likely to decide not to run in an election where indicators suggested that their party wouldn’t fare well, as is the case for Democrats now.

But not all of the retirees from either party are moderate. A number are actually from safe districts and closer to the ideological poles of their parties. And, as you can see among Republicans in particular, those legislators are more likely to be indicated with outlined circles — meaning they’re retiring to run for some other office. If we isolate just those retirees, you’ll see what I mean.

See those five Republicans near the top? They’re all from safe districts — and, in three cases, districts that got safer after redistricting. They’re retiring not out of fear of holding their seats but from ambition, seeking Senate seats or state-level positions.

Then there’s that sixth Republican. That’s Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.), whose district got redrawn from a Trump-voting one to a Biden-voting one. (This is indicated by the blue arrow: It begins where his current district lands in its 2020 vote and points to where the new one will be, as measured by FiveThirtyEight.) He’s running for governor, something he’d had his eye on even before the new congressional lines were released. Nor is his redrawn district out of reach for a Republican, especially in a favorable election for that party. But it is a good reminder that running for other office can be a way to avoid a tough reelection fight without looking like that’s what you’re doing.

See that first blue circle, just under the horizontal midpoint? That’s Rep. Conor Lamb (D-Pa.), whose district hasn’t been redrawn yet. But he’s in a tough seat to hold in a good year for Republicans. He opted instead to run for the Senate.

Redistricting can spur retirements in a few ways. One is that it can be used to force incumbents to battle one another, like that pool-hall scene in “The Dark Knight.” (Well, perhaps not exactly like that.) Six retiring legislators were drawn into districts where they’d be opposing other incumbents.

It’s not necessarily the case that this prompted the retirement, of course, but it probably didn’t cause any of them to rethink their decisions.

Most of those who are retiring, though, are just retiring. A few would have to run in new, much-less-friendly districts or even districts drawn to favor the other party, again serving as a disincentive to be enthusiastic about spending nine months raising money and campaigning. But a lot of them aren’t.

That brings us to all the other reasons to retire. Perhaps, like Rep. Bobby L. Rush (D-Ill.), you’ve just been doing the same thing for a long time and retirement had arrived. Perhaps it’s time to transition to the private sector.

And, for some, it may simply be fatigue with the sheet show.