A few months ago, Charlie Dent was taking a break from his usual work for Pennsylvania’s 15th District—home of Hershey, and of a Crayola factory, and many of the Keystone State constituents who voted for Donald Trump—and talking to a politician from India, a country whose rough-and-tumble politics includes literal fistfights in a legislature that makes the U.S. Congress look downright tame.
“Your system of government is brilliant,” the Indian lawmaker told Dent, laughing at the 24-7 circus American politics have become. “It would work far better [in India] than it works in your own country.”
Dent, a moderate Republican who’s become the go-to source for reporters looking for searing criticism of the GOP in the Trump era, is one of a couple dozen members of Congress who have announced their retirements last year (not counting the ones who have gone down in sexual harassment scandals), with more likely coming amid an expected Democratic wave in the 2018 midterm elections. People retire every cycle. But this year’s group is a bumper crop of members wondering whether Congress is broken forever—even as they insist they love their own jobs.
The ferocity of the Gingrich Revolution, President Bill Clinton’s impeachment—even the Tea Party shutdown wars of 2011 and 2013 seem like the good old days to them now. Capitol Hill is an angry, scattered mess; each party is storing up grudges to get revenge for the next time it gets the chance; and the victories are always fleeting. When pressed, the departees will confess to deep concerns that flow from Trump, the reaction to Trump, and the politics that created and elected Trump.
“I’ve never experienced as much anger and hatred as I did in the first few months of ,” says Representative John Duncan, an affable ultraconservative Republican from Knoxville, Tennessee, who is retiring after 30 years in the House.
“All the incentives are wrong now,” says Arizona Senator Jeff Flake, a onetime conservative star who is retiring after nearly two decades in the House and the Senate.
Several big committee chairs are leaving, too, because they’re term-limited by the GOP’s own rules, and don’t want to think about slinking back into the rank and file. They gush about the chance to spend more time with their grandchildren. House members in swing districts, meanwhile, talk with dread about having to defend their seats next year.
Republican Representative Frank LoBiondo of New Jersey, who came in with the Gingrich Revolution in 1994 and has been a target for House Democrats in pretty much every cycle since, decided it was worth hanging on to the chairmanship of the Aviation subcommittee, and to get on the Intelligence Committee. No longer. He’s not going to miss all the time in the car driving to barbecue after barbecue all through South Jersey on weekends, but his eyes sparkle when he talks about the 20 international trips he has made in the past eight years.
“If there had been different committees, I probably would have jumped off the Capitol dome a long time ago,” LoBiondo says. “I don’t know how some members do it.”
Years of deepening tribalism and dysfunction have taken their toll, which they gripe about while mostly blaming their political opponents, or the other chamber, or the media, though they talk up their friendships across the aisle and the long-forgotten bipartisan bills they’ve passed.
“It’s like the machinery of government is rusty and clanking along,” says Representative Lamar Smith. The Texas Republican makes a special point of blaming “the Mediacrats,” a conspiracy of Democratic and media elites to make his party look evil and dysfunctional.
The future of the job, they fear, is competing for who can flip out the most on YouTube videos, punctuated by fundraising calls and reading polls that show just how much Americans hate them. And most think the Trumpian era of base-playing politics is still closer to its beginning than its end.
And no one seems to have any real sense of what to do about it. Some blame reporters for sensationalizing the problems. They plead for more individual responsibility among their colleagues to lower the temperature. Fix the primary system. Don’t be so divided. The Senate should get rid of the filibuster—or the Senate should build the filibuster back up again. House leadership should land harder on members who vote against their bills—or be tougher on lawmakers who were never going to vote for the bills in the first place.
“The way you solve this problem,” Dent says, “is you marginalize the members who can’t get to yes on these basic matters of governance.” Put more bills on the floor, Dent says, and see what passes. “What I’ve often found here,” he said, “is they talk about the need for a majority of the majority to be there on a bill until they don’t.”
Bob Corker, the retiring senator from Tennessee, stresses that he is leaving for his own reasons, and despite his public fights with Trump, says he was very comfortable with his chances for reelection. He cherishes his chairmanship of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and insists the Senate was broken years before Trump. “There’s going to be additional glass-breaking,” he says. And until we have “a president committed to wanting strong bipartisan legislation,” very little will change.
Dent uses an optimistic line I heard from many of his fellow retiring members: “The pendulum will swing back.”
How? Why? No one could answer that question, beyond faith. “It ebbs and flows,” says Texas Democratic Representative Gene Green. Most acknowledged it looked more like a downward spiral.
I asked Flake if he thinks all the people who are rushing to run for Congress are nuts. He laughed.
“One of the problems with the internet is it creates a sense on the part of some people that it’s all just a referendum.” —Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.)
“It is a lot easier to enjoy your job when you’re a committee chairman and a member of the majority.” —Lamar Smith (R-Texas)
“I’ll miss least the people who have no discernible political principles. I’ll miss most the people who do.” —Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas)
“It seems that the Senate floor is rarely used for real debate, or even much speechifying, except for retirements.” —Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.)
“The Congress I came to was a very bipartisan, get-along place. People knew each other and tried to work together.” —Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.)
“The best advice I can give to any current or future member: Say what you believe after digging into the facts and consulting broadly.” —Sander Levin (D-Mich.)
“Bipartisan legislation doesn’t make the news because we’re not fussing and feuding and fighting.” —Ted Poe (R-Texas)
“What I will miss least is the current polarization and common refusal to listen to or respect others’ ideas. It is possible to find common ground.” —Sam Johnson (R-Texas)
“The rhetoric trickles down. It’s almost as though some of my Republican colleagues are auditioning for Fox News—what they say so much parrots what you hear.” —Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.)
“You win an election. At 8:05, the attacks start again.” —Frank LoBiondo (R-N.J.)
“If I was going to stay here, I wouldn’t wwant to stay here being defeated every day on the floor of the House.” —Gene Green (D-Texas)
“I wasn’t willing to give my voting card to leadership, and I wasn’t making fundraising calls. … It never did bother me that there was never going to be a portrait of me up in the Capitol.” —John Duncan (R-Tenn.)
“High praise these days: I go home to the grocery store, and they say, ‘Thank you for being sane.’” —Charlie Dent (R-Pa.)