House Retirements at a Minimum

Trend Surprises, Heartens Both Parties as They Prepare for 2004 Races

Posted October 22, 2003 at 5:48pm

Ten months into the 2004 election cycle, both House Democratic and GOP leaders are surprised by the historically low levels of retirements by sitting Members so far.

And while November’s planned adjournment, and the upcoming filing deadlines for the 2004 elections, may bring some retirement bombshells for both parties, senior Republicans in particular are impressed that their Democratic counterparts have been successful thus far in convincing their Members to stay put.

Only seven Members have announced their intentions to retire or have already stepped aside. One of those seven is Rep. Richard Gephardt (Mo.), who is seeking the Democratic presidential nomination.

Another eight Members — six Republicans and two Democrats — are running for the Senate and are widely expected to leave the House even if they lose their Senate elections.

Rep. Ernie Fletcher (R) will retire from Congress if he wins the Kentucky gubernatorial race next month, requiring a special election to replace him.

But even including Fletcher, the total of 16 projected retirements is still below traditional levels.

For instance, by mid-December 2001, there were 23 announced retirements (15 Republicans, eight Democrats), while the same stage in the 2000 cycle saw 24 lawmakers (19 Republicans and five Democrats) planning to end their careers in the House.

In both cycles, at least 30 Members ended up retiring at the end of their terms.

“It’s a little light for this time of year,” acknowledged National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Reynolds (N.Y.), who recently briefed his leadership on just this issue.

Senior lawmakers and party strategists aren’t entirely sure why there are so few retirements, although they speculated that there are several reasons. Among them: The high-profile debates on Iraq and the U.S. war on terrorism are boosting interest in remaining in office; the power of incumbency, and the two parties’ increasing skill in drawing safe districts, makes it easier than ever to get re-elected; the 2002 redistricting fights forced out Members from marginal districts, leaving fewer lawmakers ready to step down this cycle; House Democrats’ personal dislike of President Bush and their desire to beat him politically; and the increased stability in the House under Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), even though Democrats chafe at the continued Republican rule.

For Democrats, the minimal number of retirements comes despite the fact that Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Robert Matsui (Calif.), while not giving up on winning back control of the chamber next year, especially with the slow-recovering economy and continued U.S. problems in Iraq, have told their colleagues that it will realistically take Democrats four years to overcome the GOP’s 12-seat majority.

While Gephardt was able to use Democrats’ anger over the 1994 Republican revolution to motivate Members, as well as raise money, Pelosi doesn’t have that advantage.

Democrats have been in the minority for nine years, and Republicans strengthened their hold on the House during redistricting last cycle. That GOP grip could get stronger if Texas Republicans, led by Majority Leader Tom DeLay, can withstand legal challenges to the districts they just redrew there.

One top House Republican aide said he was “shocked and impressed” that Pelosi has been able to keep veteran Democrats — “Old Bulls,” as some call them — like Reps. John Dingell (Mich.), John Conyers (Mich.), Ike Skelton (Mo.), Paul Kanjorski (Pa.), John Murtha (Pa.) and James Oberstar (Minn.) from retiring, even though “she knows 2006 is their best shot at retaking the House. It’s been a respectable showing on her part.”

Pelosi has also been able calm fears that she would be so liberal as Minority Leader that she would alienate the moderate and conservative wings of the Democratic Caucus.

“I don’t think that there is any question that Nancy has brought a lot of reassurance to Members,” said former Rep. Vic Fazio (D-Calif.), who ran the DCCC for two terms in the early 1990s. “She brings a lot of energy to the job.”

For his part, Matsui credits the recent floor battles on Iraq and the economy with motivating House Democrats to stay in office.

“I think essentially what is happening is that there are really historical issues going on and Members want to stick around,” he said. “You hear a lot of folks talk about how exciting their jobs are.”

Democratic operatives point to the fact that the House as a whole is younger than it once was, especially in the mid-1990s, as well as the fact that there are far fewer competitive districts for the parties to battle over.

“It’s hard to compare with the 1990s,” said David Dixon, a Democratic media consultant and former DCCC political director. “That was a weird decade.”

On the Republican side of the aisle, there are several Members on “retirement watch,” and Reynolds admitted “that there will be some surprises” as the cycle unfolds.

But Hastert and Reynolds have made a concerted effort to reach out to potential retirees in recent weeks, and so far “they don’t see any real problems,” said a GOP leader who has been briefed on those efforts.

While several Republicans — including Reps. Porter Goss (Fla.), Doug Ose (Calif.), Nick Smith (Mich.) and Scott McInnis (Colo.) — have already decided to leave, several other GOP lawmakers have given no sign of exiting yet.

Longtime Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.), whom the leadership was watching closely, just announced that he would seek another term. Reps. Amo Houghton (R-N.Y.), Don Young (R-Alaska) and Michael Bilirakis (R-Fla.), among others, have all drawn attention from the leadership, although none has yet indicated he would retire, according to GOP sources. Houghton told a New York newspaper last week that he would make a final decision in April.

Hastert and DeLay personally get a lot of credit for making the House a more attractive place to serve. Republicans also have the majority, and with control of the chamber comes benefits like committee chairmanships. GOP rules mandating term limits for committee chairmen have given more junior lawmakers the chance to run a panel that they may not have gotten in the past.

“There are opportunities for people to plot their growth,” pointed a top GOP staffer.

And with Bush in the White House, Republican lawmakers “feel they can have a real impact,” noted a Bush administration official close to the House GOP leadership. While party loyalty often means Members have to vote for bills they wouldn’t otherwise, one-party control can give them coveted access to top administration officials.

“Life is a lot easier in the majority when you have the White House,” said one senior GOP staffer. “Why leave when you can stay and be a player?”