House members appear to strongly dislike their jobs

Members of the House of Representatives appear to have a strong dislike for their jobs to the extent that some are unable to complete their terms. Recently, Rep. Mike Gallagher, who had already decided not to seek reelection, announced his resignation from the House in April. Similarly, former Rep. Ken Buck also chose to leave, and he didn’t hold back in expressing his reasons for doing so. In an interview with CNN, he candidly stated, “It is the worst year of the nine years and three months that I’ve been in Congress, and having talked to former members, it’s the worst year in 40-50 years to be in Congress.”

In the 118th Congress, a significant number of representatives also share this sentiment. At present, 48 House members have either left or made public their intention to voluntarily leave Congress.* This accounts for approximately 11 percent of the House, and the session is still ongoing. It is likely that a few more will choose to depart before the year concludes.

Despite the gloomy headlines suggesting that recent dysfunction in Congress is leading to an exodus of members, the number of departures is not a record. However, it does reflect a growing trend of lawmakers deciding to leave voluntarily. As shown in the graph below, the number of representatives choosing to depart from the House has been steadily increasing since the 109th Congress (2005-06).

With the remaining time in the year, it is highly likely that three more representatives will announce their plans to leave. If this happens, the current session of Congress will have the third-highest number of departures in the last two decades. It’s worth noting that the top two sessions with the most departures were the 115th Congress (2017-18) and the 117th Congress (2021-22).

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Each of those congresses had something unusual about them. In the case of the 115th Congress, it experienced a significant number of resignations. Four representatives stepped down due to a #MeToo-related scandal, while four others left to join former President Donald Trump’s cabinet. On the other hand, the 117th Congress coincided with a redistricting cycle based on the 2020 census. This process of redrawing districts often results in more retirements than usual.

In addition to prompting a few departures this Congress, redistricting has also played a role in reshaping the political landscape. For example, North Carolina recently finalized a completely redrawn map in November, which left three Democratic members without a viable district to run in. However, the high number of departures cannot be solely attributed to redistricting. Other factors, such as the prolonged speaker elections, gridlock intensified by a narrow majority, and strained relationships between members, have contributed to this trend.

But it’s not only the increase in the number of departures that is worth noting. The profile of the departing members has also undergone a transformation. Specifically, there has been a rise in the trend of individuals leaving the House after serving only a few terms, as illustrated by the chart below.

During the 110th Congress (2007-08), a mere 11 percent of the total departures were accounted for by just four representatives with less than 10 years of service time who retired or resigned. However, in the 114th Congress (2015-16), which witnessed the resignation of former Speaker John Boehner due to pressure from his right flank, this figure skyrocketed to 57 percent. Since then, it has remained consistently high, hovering between 40-50 percent.

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This year, a total of 22 representatives with less than 10 years of service time have either retired or resigned. While some, such as Rep. Abigail Spanberger, are leaving the House to pursue higher office, like governor, there are also those like Arizona Rep. Debbie Lesko who are choosing to retire from Congress in order to seek a lower office, specifically the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors. Additionally, some representatives, including Rep. Greg Pence, have simply grown tired of the perceived ineffectiveness of Congress.

The Congress faces a challenge with the brain drain it is experiencing. Having institutional memory is crucial for effectively navigating the intricacies of our legislative branch, which is often complex and obscure. This is one of the reasons why political scientists generally oppose the idea of imposing term limits on members of Congress. The premature departures of notable committee chairs and even former Speaker Kevin McCarthy have created a void in leadership, especially within the Republican Party. The departure of Gallagher, who has only served four terms, is particularly disheartening as he was regarded as a promising legislator with the potential to ascend to a leadership position in the future.

Congressional infighting is causing frustration among the House’s young and talented individuals, leading to a wave of resignations. This not only hampers the current functionality of Congress but also puts its future at risk.

Footnotes

This count includes representatives who have resigned or publicly declared that they will not seek re-election. It does not take into account members who have been expelled (i.e., former Rep. George Santos), passed away (i.e., former Rep. Donald McEachin), or lost in primary elections (i.e., Rep. Jerry Carl). We are grateful to Daily Kos Elections for maintaining an ongoing record.

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It is important to highlight that in the current cycle, there are eight representatives who have less than 10 years of service time and are leaving the House to run for Senate. It is a common phenomenon that occurs regularly, so it does not mean they are leaving Congress altogether.

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