About Those GOP Legislators Quitting the House…

Commentary on Congress By Kevin R. Kosar February 28, 2024

Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-WI) chairs the House Select Committee on Strategic Competition with the Chinese Communist Party. He is a serious legislator, and he is not seeking reelection.

To date, twenty one Republicans have said they are departing the House of Representatives. This number does not include the GOP legislators who already left, such a George Santos, the disgraced fomer representative from New York.

As a general proposition retirements from Congress are not inherently bad. There are instances where members are not up to the job anymore or perhaps they just were never good to begin with but voters never quite saw reason to vote them out.

When I look at the list of Republicans who have announced they will not run again for office I see a few of them who won’t be missed. These individuals were not particularly effective legislators.

Rep. Matt Rosendale (R-MT) is an example. He has annoyed his GOP colleagues by first holding out against the selection of Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) as Speaker of the House, and later he helped oust him, which created needless chaos and devoured a few weeks of precious House time. Rosendale also was caught wishing outloud that the GOP would not ride a red wave to a big House majority in the November 2023 election. Why? Because a smaller majority would give him and the House Freedom Caucus more leverage. His colleagues may well be thinking, “With friends like these…” And his legislative achievements are few.

That point noted, unfortunately for the GOP, I see a lot of high quality members of the House who are departing. Rep. Mike Gallagher (WI), Rep. Michael Burgess (TX), and Rep. Brad Wenstrup (OH) are just three examples. Will they be replaced by legislators who are as serious about governing? We will see. For sure, when they leave their experience goes with them, and whomever wins each of these seats is unlikely to be as effective for some time. Being a good legislator takes time to learn. So too does earning the trust of colleagues within the party and across the aisle. Oh, and lest the truth be forgotten, getting things done in Congress necessitates building majorities—bipartisan ones.

Particularly troubling about the Republican departures is that the party is losing seasoned chairpersons. These are people who lead committees and therefore have great sway over policymaking and oversight of the executive branch. GOP chairperson departures include Kathy McMorris Rogers (WA), Kay Granger (TX), Patrick McHenry (NC), and Mike Gallagher. These are individuals who are experienced at the grubby and often exasperating work of bargaining with fellow committee members and leadership to create legislation that can gain majority support. They also have experience overseeing the executive branch, and holding agencies’ feet to the fire.

Being a committee chair is hard work but it brings the benefit of having power—far more than the average legislator. That prompts the question: why are these seasoned chairpersons quitting? None of them are bailing because of ill health or a scandal, so far as we know.

Quite probably, these Republicans are quitting because they see no real path to completing the work they find important. The House has a barely functioning majority, which is a really big problem since the Democrats the Senate and the presidency. The House GOP does not have a stable majority in the chamber that can consistently identify and move party priorities, and bargain with the Senate and White House.

Quite possibly, the departing GOP members are canaries in the coal mine. They may be telling us that Republicans are going to lose the House come November. GOP voters certainly are not thrilled with their party’s legislators.

William F. Buckley O’Reilly, a Republican strategist, recently told the Daily Caller,

“Serving in Congress is one of the worst jobs in America right now. You get to bang your head against the wall for two years and get yelled at by constituents demonstrating outside your house. It’s no wonder members are fleeing in droves. People run for Congress to actually get things done, and when the reality of a stalemated Washington hits home, they want out of there. Who can blame them?”

And when your own party has contributed to the stalemate, well, the incentive for a legislator to stick around is even lower.

Kevin R. Kosar is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He worked for more than a decade as a nonpartisan researcher at the Library of Congress’s Congressional Research Service. Kevin also hosts the Understanding Congress podcast and is co-editor of the book, Congress Overwhelmed: Congressional Capacity and Prospects for Reform.


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