Posted by Guest on November 17, 2017 in Blog

by Hanna Saba

The 2018 midterm elections are a year away and members of Congress–Republicans in particular—are deciding they want no part of it. Thus far, 12 Republicans in the House and two in the Senate have announced that they plan to retire from Congress at the beginning of 2019. Three others have either resigned or plan to resign soon, and another 10 have announced that they’re running for a different office. On the opposite side of the aisle, four Democrats in the House and zero senators plan to retire from Congress, which is a pretty dramatic partisan disparity.

Representative Bob Goodlatte (R-VA.), the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, is the most recent to announce that he will not seek re-election in 2018. “With my time as Chairman of the Judiciary Committee ending in December 2018, this is a natural stepping-off point and an opportunity to begin a new chapter of my career and spend more time with my family, particularly my granddaughters,” Goodlatte said in a statement. Rep. Goodlatte’s announcement is just one of many made by lawmakers not seeking re-election next year. Some other big names in the House include Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-TX), who chairs the Financial Services Committee, and Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), who chairs the House Science Committee. 

So far, the number of retiring Republican isn’t drastically different from other cycles. However, being a year away from the election, there is still time for the number of retirements to increase. It’s worth considering why members of Congress retire and what they do once they announce their plans to do so. 

Why do members of Congress retire?

An academic study found that politicians are more likely to retire when they believe they’re in for a tough race. The study postulates a “theory of strategic retirement” which suggests that “many members retire to avoid likely defeat, so that one would expect a party's retirement rate to increase during an election cycle expected to be unfavorable to it.” The discrepancy in retirement announcements between the two parties suggests that many Republicans may fear a backlash against their party due to President Donald Trump’s poor approval rating. That fear was exacerbated by sweeping Democratic victories in Virginia’s recent elections, often viewed as a bellwether state. On the other hand, a few have explained their decision by citing term limits on chairmanships they currently hold. Several retirees are in safe red districts and face little danger and may just be ready to move on.

What happens when lawmakers announce their retirement?

Retiring members appear to feel more comfortable voicing their blunt opinions on political issues. Indeed, according to political scientist Michael Romano, “retiring representatives seem to develop new perspectives on salient issues.” Legislators also tend to express appreciation for bipartisanship when deciding to retire. “In retirement announcements on the floor, these lawmakers sometimes lament Congress’s partisan polarization,” Romano notes. This helps explain why Senators Corker and Flake were willing to publicly criticize President Trump and the Republican party, something most Republicans have avoided doing. 

There are reasons to believe that more retirements are in the future for both the House and the Senate. Moreover, the Democratic party is facing its own battles, to unite the DNC and to overcome political gerrymandering. All of this could make 2018 an interesting and unprecedented mid-term.

Hanna Saba is a 2017 fall intern at the Arab American Institute.