The news last week that Rep. John Dingell — the longest-serving member of the U.S. House of Representatives — was retiring was surprising to those who viewed Dingell as someone who would serve for life.
But for others, it was yet more evidence that longtime Democratic lawmakers are increasingly pessimistic about their odds of taking back the House in the years to come.
Dingell, from Michigan, joins a handful of heavy-hitting Democrats with considerable seniority — among them Reps. George Miller of California, Henry Waxman of California and James Moran of Virginia — who have decided to retire at the end of this year.
“I think they concluded in their own mind they’re not going to win the House back,” said former Rep. David Hobson, R-Springfield, who made a similar decision in 2007 after Democrats won the House one year earlier.
Hobson said the list of retirees includes many who “have been actively doing things all their lives in the Congress,” and who have decided it’s harder to be effective in the minority.
“They’ve been powerful chairmen,” he said. “They don’t want to sit around any longer.”
And the current partisan rancor in the House, Hobson said, probably gave them the nudge they needed to step down.
“If Congress were a little more willing to do things in a bipartisan way where they could play a role, they might’ve stayed,” he said.
But Nathan Gonzales of the Rothenberg Political Report said that while “certainly a lot of old guard is deciding this is the end,” he’s not sure they looked at electoral politics when making their decision. Many, he said, are in seats that will stay Democratic long after they’re gone.
“I don’t know that there is a common thread in their thinking,” he said.
Gonzales said the number of House retirements actually is a little below average. In all, 20 House members are retiring — nine Democrats and 11 Republicans, according to a tally compiled by Roll Call.
It’s the status of those retiring, he said, that’s causing a stir. Dingell, Waxman and Miller have served a total of 69 terms between them — the equivalent of 139 years in Congress.
But it’s the retirees in the more swing seats, such as Reps. Jim Matheson, D-Utah and Mike McIntyre, D-N.C., that should be troublesome to Democrats. Those seats, he said, might “chip away” at Democrats’ chances of gaining any seats.
Currently, Republicans have a 33-seat majority in the House. The GOP will also see some veteran lawmakers retire at the end of this Congress. Among them: Reps. Spencer Bachus of Alabama, who has served 11 terms; Frank Wolf of Virginia who has served 17 terms; and Howard “Buck” McKeon of California, the House Armed Services Committee Chairman who has served 11 terms.
Of those retiring, Democrats have served a total of 116 terms and Republicans have served a total of 99 terms.
An additional 12 House members are leaving to run for the Senate; they include three Democrats and nine Republicans. And six House members — two Democrats and four Republicans — have resigned.
In Ohio, the Democrats’ chances of winning seats in 2014 are slim, Gonzales said. While Rep. David Joyce, R-Russell Township, is considered to be in a swing district, Gonzales said so far he seems to be relatively safe.
“I don’t view Joyce as imminently vulnerable,” said David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report.
Rep. Bill Johnson, R-Marietta, faces a challenge from former state Rep. Jennifer Garrison, D-Marietta.
Wasserman said that race, however, “is still Bill Johnson’s race to lose,” he said.
President Obama’s popularity, he said, is at a low in that district.
“If this were a race between Bill Johnson and Garrison that happened in a vacuum, Garrison might have a chance,” Wasserman said, adding that the national environment won’t help Garrison in that district.
Many of the retiring representatives were dealmakers, said former Rep. Dennis Eckart, D-Cleveland. Miller and House Speaker John Boehner, for example, worked together on the 2001 No Child Left Behind education law.
“These guy are masters of the process,” Eckart said, saying while they had “very clear theological agendas, they knew how to modify their agendas to the realities of life.”
Republican or Democrat, Hobson said the departure of longtime lawmakers does little to move legislation forward.
“There are less and less people with knowledge of what’s going on,” he said. “And that’s not a healthy thing for the country.”
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