Why House Democrats Are Retiring, and What It Means
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- U.S. Representative Ed Perlmutter of California announced on Monday that he would not run for another term, making him the 18th House Democrat retiring after this Congress. That’s not a huge number, especially for an election year immediately after a census and redistricting, although there’s still time for more. The first 2022 primary election is coming up on March 1 in Texas, but filing deadlines in several states for the November midterm elections are still weeks and, in a few cases, months away. Some states haven’t even finished drawing new district lines. Meanwhile, only four Republicans have announced their retirement.
That’s what things typically look like when both parties expect the current minority party to win control of the chamber. Those who expect to find themselves in the minority often retire. But I’m not sure how much of a signal these Democratic retirements are sending.
Until recently, I would have argued that expectations alone tend to be important because they can become self-fulfilling, with retirements a big part of the equation. Parties expecting to do poorly wind up with fewer resources to contest an election, and incumbent members of the House used to be among the most important resources. However, the evidence shows that the advantage of being the incumbent has vanished as partisan polarization increases. It’s not clear yet whether other resources — money, enthusiasm, quality candidates — will favor Republicans this year or not.
Most of the Democratic retirements so far appear to be in either somewhat or very safe districts, so it’s not likely that they will cost the Democrats seats. Note that while some members of the House retire because redistricting erects new barriers to re-election — that’s the case for Florida’s Stephanie Murphy — new district lines can be discouraging even if there’s no chance of November defeat. Representation is a relationship, and as we know from the 1978 political science classic “Home Style,” by Richard Fenno, when district lines change, politicians can find the new parts of their district confusing and even alienating.
What’s most noteworthy about the Democrats who are leaving the House without other electoral plans, however, is that they are as a group extremely old. Murphy is the exception; she will be 44 when the next Congress gavels in on Jan. 3, 2023. But four of the others are in their 80s, with Eddie Bernice Johnson of Texas already 86, and all but four would turn at least 70 during their next terms if they stuck around. Even with Murphy, the group will average about 71 years old by January 2023. And the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, who is 81, is expected to step down after the election, although she has committed to running for another term.
Even in a body as old as the U.S. Congress, this is unusual. The four Republicans who are leaving without running for higher office will be 67, 51, 44, and 38 when the next Congress begins.
Democrats may expect to lose their majority, and that could be a factor in the retirements. But the age data suggest something else may be going on as well. After losing the House in the 1994 elections, Democrats regained it in 2006 for only four years, and they only had unified control for two of those years. For those who decided after 2010 to stick around, it’s now been another 12 years — and they have now had the opportunity once again to serve in key positions during a period of unified government. Moreover, it seems likely that by the end of this Congress they will have passed many of their priorities (some of which already were achieved in 2021). In other words, for those in their 70s and 80s, the question isn’t really why they are leaving soon but why they stuck around this long.
There’s a bit more evidence available about what Democrats think about this election cycle. Eight House Democrats and seven House Republicans are leaving to run for other offices. That does not suggest a party scared of November. There’s also the other side of the Capitol; only one Senate Democrat, Vermont’s Pat Leahy, is retiring, while five Republican senators are leaving. Back on the House side, two Republicans have resigned during this Congress to take jobs outside of electoral politics; there were several Democrats who resigned as well, but those were all to take positions in the administration of President Joe Biden early in 2021, well before expectations for November 2022 were set. All of this suggests that the startling partisan difference in House retirements — 18 to 4 — may overstate the political significance of what’s happening.
It’s still early. Perhaps we’ll see a further wave of retirements, including some from younger Democrats. And whatever Democrats are thinking, the small number of Republican retirements in a year ending with “2” is unusual, and a sign of Republican confidence.
But overall, it appears that the Democratic retirements to date probably do not signal a collapse of Democratic resources for the fall elections. Nor will it cause one. That won’t save them if Biden can’t recover from his current low approval ratings, but it would mean that if Biden does recover, the Democrats’ difficult fall and winter in 2021 probably won’t hurt them in 2022.
Beyond that, the importance of the Democratic retirements depends on one’s perspective. The party will lose a lot of legislative experience. At the same time, there’s a general consensus that House Democrats badly need an infusion of new blood into committee and party leadership, and it looks like they’re going to get it. And after all, whatever they think, there’s still a good chance that they aren’t going to have the majority again for a while after these elections.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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