Headed for the Exits

Happy Thursday! It’s the most wonderful time of the year! That’s right: “Spotify Wrapped” season! We love finding out which of our relatives and coworkers are secretly Swifties, and which are listening to much cooler indie records. 

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • Early this morning, the Israeli Defense Forces confirmed another extension of the existing ceasefire deal between Israel and Hamas—this time for a single day—that is set to include the release of eight more Israeli hostages taken by Hamas, the release of additional Palestinian prisoners, and continued humanitarian aid into Gaza. Hamas freed 16 more hostages (including an American) on Wednesday—in exchange for Israel releasing an additional 30 Palestinian prisoners—as part of the six-day, internationally mediated truce originally set to end this morning. More than 150 people are still being held hostage by the terrorist group. Meanwhile, U.S. officials told Politico that the Biden administration does not have plans to attach conditions on aid to Israel based on how it wages its war against Hamas, despite President Joe Biden suggesting last week such conditions were a “worthwhile thought.”
  • The Department of Justice on Wednesday unsealed a superseding indictment against Nikhil Gupta, an Indian national accused of plotting to kill—at the direction of an Indian government employee—a U.S. citizen who is outspoken in his support for the creation of an independent state for Indian Sikhs. U.S. intelligence community officials, including CIA Director William Burns and Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, have reportedly traveled to warn their Indian counterparts of the incident’s potential ramifications for U.S.-India relations. The indictment follows a similar allegation— reportedly made with the help of U.S. intelligence—from Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in September, accusing the Indian government of involvement in the June murder of a Canadian Sikh leader near Vancouver. 
  • The Commerce Department on Wednesday boosted its initial estimate of third quarter real GDP growth, revising its preliminary assessment of U.S. economic growth during the July to September period from a 4.9 percent annual rate to a 5.2 percent annual rate. The revised figures reflected larger-than-expected increases in business investment and government spending, but were slightly offset by bearish consumer spending growth—3.6 percent yearly in Q3—relative to the department’s original estimate. 
  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Wednesday that U.S. life expectancy ticked up in 2022 to 77.5 years, up 1.1 years from 2021. The improvement reflects a decreased COVID-19 mortality rate after the U.S. population lost 2.4 years of life expectancy from 2019 to 2021, though flu and pneumonia deaths—among a handful of other conditions—partially offset the decrease in COVID-19 fatalities. Meanwhile, the CDC also released provisional data Wednesday showing 49,449 people committed suicide in the United States last year—a 3 percent increase from 2021 and the highest level on record. Men—particularly senior men—remained more likely to die by suicide, but the suicide rate increased more quickly in 2022 for women—particularly those ages 25 to 34. Suicides by children and teens, however, decreased year-over-year.
  • Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, the country’s highest-ranking Jewish official, gave a roughly 40-minute speech on the Senate floor Wednesday condemning the antisemitism that has exploded across the United States following Hamas’ October 7 attack on Israel, calling it “a five-alarm fire that must be extinguished.” The address, aimed largely at those on the political left, called out progressives who celebrated Hamas’ brutal attack and repeatedly invoked the memory of the Holocaust. “Many Jewish Americans fear what the future may bring, based on the repeated lessons of history,” he said. Meanwhile, the presidents of Harvard University, the University of Pennsylvania, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology were called to appear before the House Education and Workforce Committee on December 5 to give testimony regarding antisemitism at their respective institutions.
  • Henry Kissinger, who served as secretary of state under Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford and shaped U.S. foreign policy through the modern era, died on Wednesday at age 100. He was considered the most powerful secretary of state in postwar history, and his legacy has been both celebrated and criticized accordingly. Kissinger led efforts to normalize western relations with China and forged a détente with the U.S.S.R., leading to the first arms control treaty between the two nations. He won the 1973 Nobel Peace Prize with Le Duc Tho, leader of North Vietnam, for their negotiations that ended U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War—though he has been criticized for his role in the decision to bomb civilians in Cambodia and Vietnam.

The ‘Caliber’ of Congress

(via Getty Images)
(via Getty Images)

There are plenty of reasons to stay in Congress: the perks (who wouldn’t love on-site barbers and free parking), the prestige, the power. For some, holding office can help stave off a sense of irrelevance or even mortality. Long tenures on Capitol Hill may not have been what the Founders envisioned, but theoretically it shouldn’t be difficult to pitch a lawmaker on why it makes sense to stay in the most important and powerful elected body in the country. Yet, this past month, a record number of lawmakers announced they’re throwing in the towel.

As of this week, 37 lawmakers—seven senators and 30 House members—have announced they won’t seek reelection, and more could call it quits between now and election day. More than a dozen lawmakers said they were leaving in November alone, marking the most retirement announcements in a single month in more than 10 years. The wave of departures can be attributed to a number of factors, but most of all it reflects elected officials’ growing dissatisfaction with today’s politics as usual. Their exits will reshape the makeup of the 119th Congress, potentially decide which party holds the majority next year, and likely exacerbate the institutional decline that’s (partly) driving members away.

At the beginning of this year, the 118th Congress was one of the oldest on record, and a number of the retiring members have cited reasons you’d expect, including age and health issues. But 15 of the retiring House members are making a common political move: seeking higher office. Most are trying for the Senate, and a handful are pursuing state-wide offices. Democratic Rep. Abigail Spanberger of Virginia is running to be governor of her state. Rep. Dean Phillips of Minnesota is (sort of) mounting a challenge to President Biden in the Democratic primary. Among the Senate cohort, Mike Braun, an Indiana Republican, is seeking the Hoosier State’s governor’s mansion, and West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin probably has his eyes set on the White House.

But others are leaving because they’re fed up with how Congress now operates (or, more accurately, doesn’t operate). “I like the work, but the politics just no longer made it worth it,” said Democratic Rep. Earl Blumenauer of Oregon, who announced his retirement late last month. “I think I will have as much or more impact as a civilian as I would as a member of Congress, especially having to be involved in a pretty toxic political environment.” Blumenauer would have been in line to chair a Ways and Means subcommittee if Democrats took back control of the House next year. GOP Rep. Debbie Lesko of Arizona echoed these sentiments in her own retirement statement, lamenting how hard it is to get anything done. The Congressional Management Foundation (CMF) and Partnership for Public Service’s 2022 “State of the Congress” report found that 76 percent of “Congressional Exemplars”—congressional staffers who are “knowledgeable institutionalists” working throughout both chambers—don’t think Congress functions as a democratic legislature should.

In an era where bipartisanship is often seen as a betrayal of one’s voters, reasonable lawmakers looking to make concrete policy progress can be sidelined. “There’s a lot of members of Congress that are pretty pragmatic,” Reid Ribble, a former Republican congressman from Wisconsin who retired in 2017, told TMD. “When you’re working hard and you’re away from your family and kids, you want to feel like you’re actually accomplishing something good for the country.” Rep. Brad Wenstrup, an Ohio Republican with whom Ribble served in the House, announced his retirement two weeks ago, saying he was following the call of duty home to spend more time with his family. “He’s got young children,” Ribble said. “He’s looking at it and making a calculation.”

Blumenauer cited Wenstrup’s departure as a factor in his own decision to leave, saying too many of his Republican legislative partners are retiring. “I deeply respect some of my colleagues on both sides of the aisle,” he said. “But it’s harder and harder to work with them.”

Nothing kills job satisfaction like the feeling of spinning your wheels—and that might be why some top lawmakers are making the jump to executive positions where they might be able to get a bit more done. Republican Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska resigned in January to become the president of the University of Florida. Rep. Bill Johnson, an Ohio Republican, announced last week that he’s leaving Congress early next year to lead Youngstown State University—a move that will shrink Republicans’ already narrow House majority until a special election can be held to fill his seat. Rep. David Cicilline, a Rhode Island Democrat who was one of the top voices in Congress on antitrust reform while leading the House Judiciary Antitrust Subcommittee, left office in June to become CEO of the Rhode Island Foundation, a community non-profit. He said the CEO position “was unexpected, but it is an extraordinary opportunity to have an even more direct impact.”

Retirements in and of themselves aren’t all that unusual; in each cycle between 2012 and 2022, at least 40 House members didn’t seek reelection. But for some congressional observers, the type of lawmakers retiring this cycle is more important than the overall amount. “What’s troubling isn’t the number but the caliber of members [leaving],” Doug Heye, a longtime Republican operative, told TMD. “An appropriations chair, up-and-comers who are on the cusp of making their mark on the House.” Kay Granger, an 80-year-old Republican from Texas who chaired the Appropriations committee, announced her retirement in October. A leading Democrat on the committee, Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, lauded her work. “She and I disagree on many matters of policy,” said Hoyer, “but we share a steadfast belief in the importance of civility, consensus, and bipartisanship in the appropriations process.” 

Bradford Fitch—the head of CMF, a non-profit that helps congressional offices improve their operations—also emphasized the importance of experience. “High turnover in any organization saps the organization’s ability to perform at high levels,” he told TMD. “We saw this often during the appropriations process in the last few years, whereby many of the House members in the majority hadn’t gone through a normal appropriations process.” 

At the start of the 118th Congress, more than 30 percent of the House (137 members) had no more than two years of experience, and Rep. Mike Johnson is the least experienced House speaker since the late 19th century. Fitch cited both Wenstrup and Democratic Rep. Derek Kilmer of Washington—a six-term lawmaker who’s only 49-years-old—as examples of high-caliber lawmakers who are leaving Congress. Perhaps ironically, Kilmer led the Select Committee on Modernization for four years, helping to develop hundreds of proposals on improving how Congress functions. 

Legislative gridlock and partisanship aren’t the only factors contributing to the retirements. The aftermath of January 6 still looms large for many members. “Congress was an unhappy workplace long before Trump arrived, but since then it’s gotten much worse, ultimately culminating in January 6—a raw, emotional day that deeply troubled most of the House,” Heye told TMD.

Democratic Rep. Dan Kildee of Michigan announced his retirement this month, saying he wanted to spend more time at home but also citing the violence at the Capitol. “January 6 doesn’t stand alone as an event unseparated from the current political environment that we are in,” he said in a radio interview on Tuesday. “The coarsening of political speech, the anger, the obsessive belief in conspiracy theories with no foundation. All of that is of a piece [with] January 6.”

“It is hard for me to separate that from the decision to come home, because that wears on a person,” he added. “No matter what anybody says, that gets to you.”

From alleged physical altercations in the halls, to petty personal insults, to shouting matches during hearings, Congress can at times feel like a hostile work environment. “People are just angry right now, and they want their member of Congress to be as angry as they are,” Ribble told TMD. The personal rancor isn’t simply between Republicans and Democrats—some of the most bitter fighting on Capitol Hill over the last few months has been between fellow Republicans as they ousted one speaker and elected another.

Rep. Ken Buck of Colorado, a five-term member and one of eight Republicans who voted to oust Former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, said he would not seek another term earlier this month in part because his own party continues to lie about the 2020 election. “Many Republican leaders are lying to America, claiming that the 2020 election was stolen, describing January 6 as an unguided tour of the Capitol, and asserting that the ensuing prosecutions are a weaponization of our justice system,” he said. “[Americans’] hope for Republicans to take decisive action may be in vain.”

“There’s a part of me that wishes that I had served during a different era of Congress,” Buck added. “A more productive time.” 

While most of the retirees are departing solidly partisan districts, a few are leaving competitive seats—meaning the majorities in both chambers could hinge on seats incumbents voluntarily ceded. Republicans are looking to pick up Spanberger’s Virginia congressional district, and Democratic Rep. Jennifer Wexton’s retirement could create an opening for the GOP to take back another formerly red seat in the same state. Democratic Rep. Elissa Slotkin of Michigan is giving up her seat to run for the Senate, opening up another battleground district. In California, Rep. Katie Porter is also trying for the upper chamber—the Democratic incumbent only won her 2022 reelection by 1.7 percent, and the GOP is looking to capitalize on Porter’s absence this time around. Republicans are also strongly favored to flip Manchin’s Senate seat in West Virginia. 

Electoral consequences aside, returning members are worried their colleagues’ departures will create a vacuum in Congress that won’t be filled with worthy successors. Politico’s Jonathan Martin spoke with several Republican and Democratic lawmakers who urged those considering retiring to stick it out. “It’s exactly the wrong people who are wanting to leave,” said Democratic Rep. Brendan Boyle of Pennsylvania. “The performance artists love the circus, it’s what they crave. … If you all leave now, you’ll only make it worse here.”

The sentiment is palpable on both sides of the aisle. “If rational, common sense, get-it-done, consensus-building conservatives give up, the do-nothing, click bait, self-serving, chaos-caucus wins,” Republican Rep. Ann Wagner of Missouri added. “And America and the world loses.”

But that very chaos of the last few years could simply be the final straw for some. When explaining the exits, Heye cited Republican Rep. Patrick McHenry’s quip about the dumb and dumber days Congress has seen recently. “There will be more dumb days ahead,” he told TMD. “Is it any surprise members are saying ‘enough?’” 

Worth Your Time

  • Stephanie Courtney is one of the most successful, most recognizable actresses in the United States—and nobody knows her name. In New York Times Magazine, Caity Weaver profiles the woman who has played Flo in all those Progressive insurance commercials for the past 15 years. “Courtney did not intend to sell insurance,” Weaver wrote. “She meant to star on Broadway and then, following wish revision, to support herself as a comedic actress. Instead, she has starred in the same role for 15 years and counting, becoming in the process a character recognizable to nearly every American—a feat so rare her peers in this category are mostly cartoon animals.” Weaver wanted to know if there was something else Courtney wanted—besides a career selling insurance: “‘Who has a better job than you?’” I asked.“‘On that set?’ Courtney asked. ‘In the world.’ ‘There are times when I ask myself that,’ Courtney said. ‘The miserable me who didn’t get to audition for [Saturday Night Live] never would have known,’ she said, how good life could be when she was denied what she wanted. ‘I hope that’s coming through,’ she said. ‘I’m screaming it in your face.’”

Presented Without Comment

Business Insider: [Kevin] McCarthy Visited Mar-a-Lago After January 6 Because Staffers Said Trump Was ‘Not Eating,’ Liz Cheney Writes in Forthcoming Book

Also Presented Without Comment

National Review: ‘Gay Furry Hackers’ Breach U.S. Nuclear Research Facility

Toeing the Company Line

  • In the newsletters: Scott analyzed (🔒) how our capitalist society became so delicious, the Dispatch Politics team weighed in on Nikki Haley’s latest financial boost, Jonah berated (🔒) the “hipster antitrust” movement, and Nick examined (🔒) the Democrats’ deepening rift over Israel.
  • On the podcasts: Jonah hosts Atlantic staff writer Tim Alberta on The Remnant to discuss his new book about American evangelicalism, and David and Sarah break down the most interesting Supreme Court argument of this term and what it means for the future of double jeopardy law.
  • On the site: Charlotte reports on the questionable credentials of the Israel-Hamas war’s emerging middleman, and Drucker explores whether Ron DeSantis can hold off Haley to secure second place in Iowa.

Let Us Know

Do you see it as an inherently negative development that so many lawmakers are heading for the exits? Are any benefits that come with turnover and shorter tenures outweighed by the loss of experience and institutional memory?

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