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Old-Timers Bolt From Congress

Members with decades of experience retire from partisan, deadlocked Congress

by Jeff Johnson
April 7, 2014 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 92, Issue 14


A graphic showing some key numbers and faces associated with upcoming retirements from congress.

During the past few months, long-serving members of the Senate and House of Representatives have one after another announced that they will not seek reelection when the second session of the 113th Congress draws to a close this year. The departures of just three prominent House members will, in effect, remove nearly 140 years of experience from the lower body.

The exodus is not completely unexpected as some members are long past normal retirement ages, with service stretching back far into the past century. Yet, the totality of the departures coming during a turbulent time for Congress has raised eyebrows in Washington. Although the number of members leaving is not out of the ordinary, the departures will strike an unusually high number of years of legislative know-how from Congress.

Among those leaving the House are Reps. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.) after 60 years in Congress, Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) after 40 years, and George Miller (D-Calif.) after 40 years. The lower body will also lose its resident nuclear physicist, Rep. Rush D. Holt (D-N.J.), who will retire this year after 16 years.

The Senate will also be losing some longtime members, including Sens. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and Carl Levin (D-Mich.), both with 36 years of service in the Senate, and Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), both with 30 years of service.

Most of those leaving with high seniority are Democrats, but Republicans will also lose Reps. Doc Hastings (Wash.), who served 20 years; Howard Coble (N.C.), who served 30 years; and Frank R. Wolf (Va.), who served 34 years.

Altogether, as of late March, some 27 House members and 10 senators have announced they will retire or resign by the end of this term. Another 18 House members will step down from their current positions as they intend to run for new elective offices in Congress or elsewhere.

Democratic House members were driven to the decision at least in part by the realization that they will likely face yet another term as the minority party in a hostile and sharply divided Congress. Democrats have little power in the partisan, Republican-controlled House. They cannot mandate committee hearings or bill markups, call for investigations, or move legislation without the agreement of the majority party.



Nearly 40 Members Of Congress Will Retire Or Resign From The 113th Congress


Retiring from the House of Representatives at the end of the 113th Congress:
Total number of retirees = 22
Collective terms served in House = 236
Collective years served in House = 472 years
Average age = 66 years old

Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), 57, 4 terms
Spencer T. Bachus III (R-Ala.), 66, 11 terms
John B. T. Campbell III (R-Calif.), 58, 5 terms
Howard Coble (R-N.C.), 83, 15 terms
John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), 87, 30 terms
Jim W. Gerlach (R-Pa.), 59, 6 terms
Doc Hastings (R-Wash.), 73, 10 terms
Rush D. Holt (D-N.J.), 65, 8 terms
Tom Latham (R-Iowa), 65, 10 terms
Jim D. Matheson (D-Utah), 54, 7 terms
Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.), 70, 9 terms
Mike McIntyre II (D-N.C.), 57, 9 terms
Buck P. McKeon (R-Calif.), 75, 11 terms
Gary G. Miller (R-Calif.), 65, 8 terms
George Miller (D-Calif.), 68, 20 terms
James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.), 68, 12 terms
Bill L. Owens (D-N.Y.), 65, 3 terms
Edward Lopez Pastor (D-Ariz.), 70, 12 terms
Mike J. Rogers (R-Mich.), 50, 7 terms
Jon D. Runyan (R-N.J.), 40, 2 terms
Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), 74, 20 terms
Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.), 75, 17 terms

Retiring from the Senate at the end of the 113th Congress:
Total number of retirees = 6
Collective terms served in Senate = 22
Collective years served in Senate = 132 years
Average age = 71 years old

Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), 70, 2 terms
Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), 74, 5 terms
Mike Johanns (R-Neb.), 63, 1 term
Tim Johnson (D-S.D.), 67, 3 terms
Carl Levin (D-Mich.), 79, 6 terms
John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), 76, 5 terms

Resigned from the House of Representatives during the 113th Congress:
Total number of resigned = 6
Collective terms elected to House = 44

Rodney M. Alexander (R-La.), 67, 6 terms
Robert E. Andrews (D-N.J.), 56, 12 terms
Jo Bonner (R-Ala.), 54, 6 terms
Jo Ann Emerson (R-Mo.), 63, 8 terms
Trey Radel (R-Fla.), 37, 1 term
Melvin Watt (D-N.C.), 68, 11 terms

Announced plans to resign or resigned from the Senate during the 113th Congress:
Total number of resigning/resigned = 4
Collective terms elected to Senate = 15

Max Baucus (D-Mont.), 72, 6 terms
Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), 66, 2 terms
Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), 62, 2 terms
John Kerry (D-Mass.), 70, 5 terms

Source: Roll Call, U.S. Congressional Handbook

Retiree Dingell put it this way in an interview with the Washington Post: “I wouldn’t bring the Ten Commandments up for fear they would get voted down.”

Echoing Dingell, House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) appeared to agree. In a recent interview also with the Washington Post, he said, “Mother Teresa is a saint now, but if Congress wanted to make her a saint and attached it to a vote on the debt ceiling, we probably couldn’t get 218 votes on it.” A majority vote in the House requires 218 “yeas.”

However, House conservatives, such as Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), who is retiring this year, have made clear that they see their role as one to block congressional legislative action.

Indeed, the division in Congress has resulted in a record-low number of bills becoming law so far in the 113th Congress—only 85 new laws, which is less than one-third the average number produced by previous Congresses. Nearly all of the laws that did pass this term are simple and uncontroversial—such as renaming post offices, issuing congressional medals, and providing disaster relief, according to Library of Congress data.

Boehner defends the House, however, saying it has been busy. He notes it has passed more than 300 bills in the 113th Congress. The Republican House has cleared many bills, but most of them have little chance of becoming law.

For instance, an analysis by the Boston Globe found the House has passed legislation some 40 times to repeal portions of the Affordable Care Act. Such legislation has zero chance of being passed by the Democratic Senate or signed by the President.

This dysfunction is what has driven lawmakers such as Dingell, the longest-serving representative ever, to retire. In a speech he gave in his home state about his retirement, Dingell, 87, blasted the current Congress, calling the body a “great disappointment.” He put it more bluntly in an interview with the Detroit News following the speech: “I find serving in the House to be obnoxious,” he said. “It’s become very hard because of the acrimony and bitterness, both in Congress and in the streets.”

Congress’s most senior statesman is a prime example of the institutional knowledge that will be lost at the end of this Congress. Dingell’s most powerful post during his tenure was as chairman of the Energy & Commerce Committee and its Subcommittee on Oversight & Investigations. He was chair of the committee from 1981 to 1995 and again from 2007 to 2008. In this capacity, he led a host of congressional investigations, which frequently touched on science and chemistry.

His targets varied. He went after the American Chemistry Council, a chemical industry trade group, and the chemical industry in 2008 for improperly influencing scientific decisions at EPA. He has also taken on the National Institutes of Health and the Food & Drug Administration for wasting money and funding on what he charged was unethical and inadequate research.

Dingell is better remembered for pushing for federally funded health care—from Medicare in 1965 to the Affordable Care Act in 2010—and for environmental legislation, particularly the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990.

The air act debates stretched on for years and resulted in an unusual alliance between adversaries Dingell and Waxman, who is also retiring this year, to support tougher new standards for auto tailpipe emissions. Dingell wanted weak emissions standards, reflecting his constituents in the auto industry and workers in his Michigan district. Waxman, on the other hand, wanted tough standards in line with his Southern California region, which has the nation’s worst air pollution and toughest auto emissions standards.

Their compromise broke a logjam in the House, C&EN reported at the time. It demonstrated that deals could be reached between opposites on hard, contentious issues and that air act amendments could flow through Congress. Dingell and Waxman are considered among Congress’s most able legislators.

Their alignment, however, was only temporary. In 2008, Waxman challenged Dingell for leadership of the Energy & Commerce Committee and won.

In statements issued on the retirements of Democratic Party leaders, Speaker Boehner sounded an unusual friendly note: “Today I extend my gratitude to John Dingell for his nearly six decades of service to the people’s House. He and I have our differences of opinion, to be sure, but that does not diminish my respect for his sincerity and integrity.”

The speaker also made reference to Miller, a sometimes brash but effective California representative. The two served for years on the House Education & the Workforce Committee.

“No one would confuse me and George Miller for ideological soul mates, but during our years serving together on the Education & the Workforce Committee, we got things done on behalf of the American people, thanks in no small part to his dedication and willingness to work for the greater good.”

In statements announcing his retirement, Dingell stressed repeatedly that only voters can straighten out what he sees as a dysfunctional Congress. In the end, the November elections will likely determine the impact of these retirements.


Highlights Of John D. Dingell's 60 Years Of Service In The House Of Representatives


Date of birth: July 8, 1926

Year elected: 1955 in a special election to fill the 12th district of Michigan seat left open when his father, who held the seat for the prior 22 years, died

President when first elected: Dwight D. Eisenhower

Rep. John D. Dingell with President John F. Kennedy, circa 1962.

Most powerful post: Chair of the House Energy & Commerce Committee (1981–95 and 2007–08)

One notable investigation: In the late 1980s and 1990s, Dingell's oversight homed in on federally funded research, particularly a lengthy investigation of charges of fraud in a paper by Nobel Laureate David Baltimore, Thereza Imanishi-Kari, and others, published in Cell in 1986 (DOI: 10.1016/0092-8674(86)90389-2). Dingell's aggressive investigation involved Secret Service agents and his committee staff members, who were characterized as "thugs" at that time by some in the science community. Dingell strongly defended his right to conduct such an investigation; Baltimore charged that American science was becoming a "victim" of government inquiry. Eventually, the Cell paper was withdrawn. Various NIH panels continued to investigate the matter with conflicting results, and in the end, charges were dropped and the whole incident slowly slipped from public view.

Key legislation: Medicare in 1965, Clean Air Act Amendments in 1990, and the Affordable Care Act in 2010

Historical events that happened while he was in office: Assassination of John F. Kennedy, the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, the first man on the moon, the Watergate scandal, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Gulf War, and the 9/11 terrorist attacks


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