House members seem to really hate their jobs

Members of the House of Representatives seem to hate their jobs so much, some can’t even see them through to the end of the year. On Friday, Rep. Mike Gallagher, who had already opted not to seek reelection, announced he would resign from the House in April. A week earlier, now-former Rep. Ken Buck did the same thing — and didn’t mince words about why he was leaving. “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,” he told CNN.

Plenty of other representatives seem to agree. So far in the 118th Congress, 48 House members have either left or announced plans to leave Congress voluntarily.* That’s 11 percent of the House, and the session isn’t even over yet; a handful more will probably depart before the year is out.

Despite all the gloomy headlines about how recent dysfunction in Congress is pushing members toward the exits, that number isn’t a record. But it is part of a recent trend of members of Congress deciding they want out. As you can see in the graph below, the number of representatives voluntarily departing the House has been on an upward trajectory since the 109th Congress (2005-06).

If just three more representatives announce plans to leave — which seems likely, given how much time is left in the year — the current session of Congress will have the third-most departures of the last 20 years. And the top two were both recent examples: the 115th (2017-18) and 117th (2021-22) congresses.

What’s more, there was something unusual about each of those congresses. The 115th Congress had a large number of resignations, as four representatives quit as a result of a #MeToo-related scandal and four quit to join former President Donald Trump’s cabinet. And the 117th Congress coincided with a redistricting cycle based on the 2020 census — the redrawing of everyone’s districts often leads more people to retire than usual.

While redistricting has prompted a handful of departures in this Congress as well (for example, North Carolina finalized a completely redrawn map in November, leaving three Democratic members with nowhere to run), there isn’t an equivalent special circumstance about the current congress that explains why departures are so high — other than the paralysis of two protracted speaker elections, gridlock amplified by a razor-thin majority and bad blood between members.

But it’s not just the number of departures that has increased. The type of member who is leaving Congress has changed too. Specifically, more and more people are leaving the House after just a few terms in office, as the chart below shows.

Back in the 110th Congress (2007-08), only four representatives with less than 10 years of service time retired or resigned, making up just 11 percent of the total departures that congress. But in the 114th Congress (2015-16) — which was marked by the resignation of former Speaker John Boehner under pressure from his right flank — that number spiked to 57 percent, and it has stayed around 40-50 percent ever since.

So far this year, 22 representatives with less than 10 years of service time have retired or resigned. Some, like Rep. Abigail Spanberger, are bailing on the House to run for higher office, like governor.** But at least one, Arizona Rep. Debbie Lesko, is retiring from Congress to seek a lower office — the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors. And others, like Rep. Greg Pence, have just gotten sick of Congress’s fecklessness.

This brain drain is a problem for Congress. Institutional memory is an important part of getting things done in our complex, often arcane legislative branch, which is one reason political scientists have largely found that congressional term limits are a bad idea. The seemingly premature departures of several high-profile committee chairs — not to mention former Speaker Kevin McCarthy — have left a leadership vacuum, particularly on the GOP side of the aisle. And the departure of Gallagher, who has served just four terms, may particularly sting as he was seen as an up-and-coming serious legislator who could have become a party leader someday.

So if congressional infighting is making the House’s smart young blood throw up their hands and abandon ship — and the data suggests that it is — then it’s not just making Congress less functional in the present. It’s endangering its future as well.


*In other words, this tally includes representatives who have resigned or announced that they will not be running for reelection. It doesn’t include members who have been expelled (i.e., former Rep. George Santos), died (i.e., former Rep. Donald McEachin) or lost primaries (i.e., Rep. Jerry Carl). Thanks to Daily Kos Elections for keeping a running list.

**It’s worth noting that eight representatives with less than 10 years of service time are leaving the House to run for Senate — a phenomenon to be expected in any given cycle — so they’re not leaving Congress entirely.

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