Some House Members Are Contemplating Retirement, According to History

by Nathan L. Gonzales May 30, 2019 · 4:10 PM EDT

As the unofficial kickoff of summer, Memorial Day is a time to remember the fallen, spend time with family and grill meats. But history tells us it’s also a time for more than a handful of members to reconsider their future in the House.

Going back to 1976, an average of 23 House members have not sought re-election or another office each election cycle. So far this cycle, just four have made that decision, which means more retirements will come and competitive open seats could change the fight for the majority.

Last cycle, retirements played a key part in Democrats’ gains and their taking control of the House. There’s no guarantee Florida’s Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Washington’s Dave Reichert, California’s Ed Royce, Michigan’s Dave Trott or Pennsylvania’s Ryan A. Costello would have won re-election, but their retirements last year made it more difficult for Republicans to hold their competitive seats in a challenging midterm environment.

This cycle, Rep. Rob Bishop’s and José E. Serrano’s retirements don’t affect the battleground map because their seats are safely red and blue, respectively. In 2016, Donald Trump won Utah’s 1st District by 27 points and Hillary Clinton won New York’s 15th by 89 points.

But Rep. Dave Loebsack’s decision not to seek re-election pushed a Solid Democratic race into the Toss-up category, considering Trump won Iowa’s 2nd District, 49 percent to 45 percent, according to calculations by Daily Kos Elections.  

Republican Rob Woodall’s retirement may improve his party’s chances of holding Georgia’s 7th District, considering his underwhelming campaign in 2018. But there’s no guarantee either party will be lucky enough to have retirements with favorable circumstances.

Republicans might benefit if members such as Steve King of Iowa, Chris Collins of New York and Duncan Hunter of California decide not to seek re-election based on their persona or legal liabilities. But retirements in more competitive districts could be problematic.

Democrats might be disinclined to leave, now that they’re in the majority for the first time in nearly a decade. But that didn’t prevent Loebsack from retiring, and it’s tough to know when individual circumstances and priorities prevail.

While history tells us there will be more retirements, identifying the next ones is more complex than singling out the oldest person in the room. In the 2018 cycle, there were as many retirements by members over the age of 70 as there were by those younger than 60.

That’s because there are a myriad reasons why members choose to retire. Age is just one of them. Others include not having an opportunity to move up the leadership or committee ladder, the partisanship of a district that lends to consistently tough re-election races, ethical screw-ups, being stuck in the minority or feeling ideologically alienated by your own caucus.

Sometimes members may consider opportunities to make money outside Congress before they retire, especially those who aren’t personally wealthy. Hundreds of former members are registered lobbyists, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. But members can’t take advantage of that opportunity if they wait until they are too old to have good working years left in them.

Over the past 42 years, the fewest number of members to retire in a cycle was nine, back in 1984. So unless this Congress is going to top that low point, it is reasonable to expect at least a handful more retirements, if not a couple of dozen or more.