Last week, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) added their names to what has become an unusually large Republican exodus from Washington, announcing that they will not run for re-election this year. Shuster joins 32 other Republican House members to announce their retirement or their intention to run for another office, double the 16 House Democrats who will not run for re-election. In the other chamber, Sens. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) also are retiring.
The power of incumbency in Congress has long been criticized, with members often being returned to office with little or no competition. But incumbency is not inherently a bad thing. It takes time to learn the ways of legislating and to gain the knowledge and earn the seniority to become an effective champion of the legislator’s constituency.
And despite the weakening of the role of committee chairs, chairmanship counts. In October, GOP Rep. Jeb Hensarling of Texas, who chairs the House Financial Services Committee, announced he would not run again. So did Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. House GOP rules prevent members of its caucus from holding the chairman’s gavel for more than six years, so Goodlatte and Hensarling rightly concluded that they had nowhere to go in Congress but down.
For others, their districts are shifting toward independents and Democrats, making a re-election bid potentially more difficult. Then there is the Trump effect, which seems to support a rightward-leaning insurgency.
It is noteworthy that most of the departing Republicans are from the increasingly squeezed moderate wing of the party. Many of the outgoing members are politicians who, in other circumstances, might be willing to reach out to Democrats to solve tricky national issues. But, they didn’t do so during the Obama years, and haven’t done so during Trump’s presidency. Perhaps they are fleeing the gridlock of uncompromising partisanship.
Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.), who is not seeking re-election, is a leader of the Tuesday Group of center-right House members. At least six other members of that group of moderates are retiring this year. Ever the fans of moderation and compromise, we view their exits with concern and a degree of trepidation. Thus, while we recognize that new members refresh Congress with new perspectives, drive and dedication, we still wonder: Who will replace these legislators?
GOP primaries tend to favor the immoderate. Roy Moore of Alabama, who made a career of religious grandstanding and flouting the rule of law, is a disturbing recent example. While we hope he is the exception, we fear he is not.
If outgoing Republicans are succeeded by strident extremists — from either party — who can only say no to negotiations, then there will be more trouble for this nation ahead. We can only hope that the electorate represented by these departing moderates embrace the vision of their soon-to-be former legislators.