Republicans were supposed to be having the time of their lives.
After years of passing legislation that was little more than political messaging sent to die on the desk of a Democratic president — if it even made it that far — they finally got what they had been hoping for: a Republican president, willing to sign legislation passed by a Republican-controlled House and Senate.
But eight months into the new administration, hope for a unified Republican government has given way to frustration and a legislative standstill, leaving many members eyeing the exits.
“Is there frustration? Sure. I don’t get the sense a lot’s going to happen in the next couple years. And there’s a lot of polarization around here that leads to paralysis,” Pennsylvania Rep. Charlie Dent, who recently announced his retirement, told BuzzFeed News.
Dent is one of three Republican members — one of whom is not yet halfway through his second term — to announce they would retire in just the past two weeks, bringing the total number of Republican retirees to seven in the House. Five others are skipping town to run for governor in their home states, and one — former Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz — left Congress early to take a job on Fox News. Observers of Republican politics expect that number will only grow.
It’s not the number of retirements that is raising alarms. On average, 22 members retire each year without running for another political office — per a calculation by Roll Call – meaning this cycle’s numbers, so far, remain low. It’s the fact that these members are choosing to bail at this moment. It’s standard to see members jump ship in the face of future years of impotence in the minority. But these Republicans are leaving just as they have finally, at least theoretically, gotten everything they want.
“I think there’s more talk about the frustration of not getting things done than I’ve heard in a long time,” said North Carolina Rep. Mark Meadows, who chairs the conservative Freedom Caucus. (Meadows is not planning on leaving the legislature himself, but some members partially blame his group for the congressional paralysis.) “There are a lot of people, myself included, [who wonder] if you can’t get something done, why stay and fight?”
In part, it’s President Donald Trump, whose mercurial temperament has left Republicans entirely uncertain of where they stand or what they might soon be defending as their agenda.
“These have been a rough however-many-months-it’s-been,” said Dent, adding that he had spoken with his family about retiring in the past, “but the frequency of those conversations increased over the past several months.”
“In my view, there’s been just too much disorder, instability and chaos. And dysfunction. I’ve often said, you know, we figured out a way to take the fun out of dysfunction… There’s no fun in the dysfunction anymore,” Dent added.
Watching from the outside, former Virginia Rep. Scott Rigell, who did not seek reelection in 2016, expressed disbelief that Republicans could handle the ideological contortions necessary to keep up with Trump’s ever-shifting ideas. “I think it would be extraordinarily difficult – apparently not for all of my conference,” said Rigell in a phone call.
But the Congress itself is also becoming a problem. After years of promises, the Republican-controlled Senate has so far been unable to pass an Obamacare repeal bill, much less come to an agreement with the House on legislation to send to the president’s desk.
“It’s really bad to have the president willing to sign it and not be able to move it through your own conference,” marveled former Wisconsin Rep. Reid Ribble, who retired at the end of the last Congress.
“Man, that’s gotta be tough.”
“We just keep taking the same votes over and over again,” griped Rep. David Reichert, who announced this month he would retire from his competitive seat representing the Seattle suburbs. Whether a bill just goes nowhere in the Senate or comes back to the House insufficiently conservative to satisfy a majority of the conference, Reichert said, the end result is the same: “It never seems to move anything.”
“Here, the first priority is the politics of the issue and not so much the solution,” he lamented.
The frustration, Reichert said, is ubiquitous. “I think that’s a feeling that’s not unique to this time in our history, but it’s probably, the feelings are a little bit more elevated,” he said in an interview with BuzzFeed News.
The announcement that Michigan Rep. Dave Trott would retire is what really left Republicans slackjawed. The Michigan representative is still new to the House — not quite halfway through his second term — and he spent nearly $4 million on his past two campaigns, a hefty price tag for two terms.
Stu Standler, Trott’s general consultant for both of his congressional races, cautioned against making too much of Trott’s decision. Ousting an incumbent in a primary, which Trott did in 2012, is expensive, as is running in a swing district, and Trott, Standler said, is someone who “really believed in the idea of the citizen legislature.”
But, he acknowledged, “once you win the first reelection, it gets a lot easier as a congressman,” he said.
Ribble, for one, expressed surprise that a “new guy” like Trott would make that decision, and heralded it as a potential “bellwether.”
“It could signal a much larger exodus coming up in the next few months," he said, "if they don’t start getting things right."
Alexis Levinson is a reporter with BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC.
Contact Alexis Levinson at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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