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High-profile House retirements reflect the toxicity on Capitol Hill

The growing band of House Republicans racing for the exits at the end of this Congress are voicing a common and unsettling theme driving their decision: the toxicity of life on Capitol Hill.

That group features a number of young, powerful lawmakers — a handful of them with formidable committee gavels — who say they’re at the end of their ropes.

Both the number of retiring committee chairs and the open disillusionment marks a notable contrast from cycles of the past, when a wave of majority-party retirements might reflect an exodus of aging veteran lawmakers, or concerns that control of the House could flip, or both. If frustration with the institution was a factor, it was rarely spoken out loud.

But while the House is, indeed, up for grabs this year, the latest crop of departing Republicans seems to view that as an afterthought. Many instead are citing their exasperation working in a Congress where internal GOP clashes have ground the task of legislating to a crawl and the most incendiary voices reap the rewards of national fundraising, media attention and political celebrity.

“Electoral politics was never supposed to be a career and, trust me, Congress is no place to grow old,” Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.), the chair of the House select committee on China, said in announcing his retirement earlier this month.

He’s hardly alone.

Just two days before, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), 54, a 20-year veteran who currently chairs the powerhouse Energy and Commerce Committee, announced her intent to leave Congress at the end of this term. And last week, Rep. Mark Green (R-Tenn.), 59, chairman of the Homeland Security panel, followed suit, announcing his exit after six years on Capitol Hill.

They joined two other committee leaders, Reps. Kay Granger (R-Texas), who heads Appropriations, and Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.), who holds the Financial Services gavel, in calling it quits. Between the pair, they have almost 50 years of experience in Congress.

Barring a waiver, Granger and McHenry would have been term-limited out of those top spots next year. But Gallagher, McMorris Rodgers and Green would have been eligible to remain in place, and some suggested the dysfunction on Capitol Hill has made their work there all but futile.

“Our country — and our Congress — is broken beyond most means of repair,” Green said in announcing his decision. “I have come to realize our fight is not here within Washington, our fight is with Washington.”

The number of retiring committee chairs is fueling anxiety among members in both parties that the typical “brain drain” that accompanies the inevitable round of biennial retirements will be more pronounced this year — and have a greater impact on how the lower chamber functions in the next Congress.

“We’re fractured, and there’s a lot of angst. So yeah, we’re chipping away at some of the more institutional people here. And when I say that, I say that with the highest compliment,” said Rep. Steve Womack (R-Ark.), a seven-term veteran. “These are people that have been around a while. They’re smart people; they’re experienced people.

“And I don’t see how losing this number of veteran members of Congress … does anything but jeopardize our ability to manage the affairs of the American people the way they should be managed.”

Not all Republicans, however, are bemoaning the stream of senior lawmakers leaving the House. Some, in fact, are welcoming it, hoping to usher in a more hawkish group of  conservative purists to replace the outgoing institutionalists — a marker the rabble-rousers set in October when they ousted former Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) over his willingness to cut budget deals with the White House.

“We can’t save America with the current Republican team. We have to get tougher and smarter. We need newer, bolder voices in the House,” said Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), a top ally of former President Trump who single-handedly forced the vote on McCarthy’s removal.

“The ‘institutional knowledge’ i’m accused of wiping out is often knowledge your lawmakers acquire to enrich themselves, trade stocks and sell out We the People,” he added in a post on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter. “The next phase of our plan is to REPLACE the droves of retiring members with America First Patriots.”

Others dismissed the idea that a toxic environment was driving lawmakers to retire, arguing it’s only natural for veterans to seek a change of venue after years in Washington.

“Chairmen leaving after they’re done makes sense,” Rep. Byron Donalds (R-Fla.) said. “My friend Patrick McHenry — Patrick has put in, what is it, 18 years on Capitol Hill? He’s got young kids, man. Like, it’s OK to retire and go do life.”

Still, there are enough Republicans voicing their frustrations on their way out the door to suggest a deterioration in Congress as a functioning body.

“Right now, Washington, D.C. is broken,” Rep. Debbie Lesko (R-Ariz.) said in announcing her retirement after four terms. “It is hard to get anything done.”

Gallagher’s decision, in particular, caught many of his colleagues off guard. The 39-year-old — a Marine Corps veteran with a Ph.D. from Georgetown University — was widely seen as a rising star in the Republican conference.

Yet he also infuriated many Republicans, on and off of Capitol Hill, when he bucked GOP leaders and voted against the impeachment of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, leading to open speculation that he would have faced a primary challenger from the right if he sought reelection. He announced his retirement three days after the vote.

Those dynamics have shined a bright light on the warring factions within the GOP, pitting institutional-minded lawmakers — moderates with an eye for legislative compromise — against the conservative firebrands of the Freedom Caucus who demand ideological purity from Republican leaders and view bipartisan deals as a capitulation to President Biden.

Perhaps no better example of those circumstances came earlier this month, when House conservatives shot down a compromise border security agreement that was negotiated by a bipartisan group of senators, including Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.), who is among the most conservative lawmakers in the Capitol. The Senate talks launched after Republicans demanded that any aid for Ukraine be paired with border security.

But conservatives — at the urging of Trump — argued the bipartisan package did not go far enough and would fail to fix the situation at the southern border, catapulting lawmakers back to square one in their quest to send aid overseas.

Trump’s role in torpedoing the border deal was a reflection of the grip he has on the GOP conference — which is only getting tighter as he marches toward the Republican presidential nomination and continues to cause headaches for GOP lawmakers.

His “America first” foreign policy perspective and endorsement of election denialism has further exacerbated the tear in the Republican Party — and more acutely, the GOP conference, pitting Trump’s staunchest allies against his few remaining detractors.

Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colo.), a five-term lawmaker who is hanging up his hat at the end of this year, had become known for his willingness to break from the GOP on various matters, including impeaching Mayorkas and certifying the results of the 2020 presidential election.

But his party’s continued peddling of election denialism was the final straw.

“Our nation is on a collision course with reality, and a steadfast commitment to truth — even uncomfortable truth — is the only way forward,” Buck said in a video announcing his retirement. “Too many Republican leaders are lying to America, claiming that the 2020 election was stolen, describing Jan. 6 as an unguided tour of the Capitol and asserting that the ensuing prosecutions are a weaponization of our justice system.”

The mass exodus of lawmakers comes amid a particularly unproductive Congress that thus far, has included two Speaker’s races, the first-ever removal of a Speaker, a near-economic default and several shutdown cliffs that prompted a scramble among members.

Much of that tumult has been the result of divisions within the Republican conference. GOP lawmakers have watched six rule votes fail on the floor this Congress, three during the McCarthy era and three under his successor, Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.). The most recent instance was last week, when 18 Republicans joined Democrats in torpedoing a rule to advance two bills.

The typically mundane, party-line votes have turned into a favorite way for conservatives to protest leadership, agitating rank-and-file members who are itching to legislate.

“People are frustrated,” said Rep. Kelly Armstrong (R-N.D.), who is opting out of another House term to run for governor of the Flickertail State. “I’m frustrated in a different way, because, like I just said, we had a rule fail with 18 Republican votes yesterday, and like, we didn’t even miss a beat. We just moved on to the next vote.”

“That’s like, legitimately the tool of the majority, and we have just completely accepted the fact that we’re not going to utilize it anymore.”

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