Exiting the House
The many paths to ending a career in Congress' lower chamber
April 17th, 2014,
Over the past 40 years, there have been many ways to leave the U.S. House of Representatives. Specifically, nine different methods. The main ones, beyond losing a primary or general election, are to retire or run for another office. But a member can also do one of the following: be appointed to another office, resign, be expelled, pass away or, in the rarest of instances, have the House vacate one’s seat.
So far, 50 members of the 113th Congress have either left office or signaled their intentions to leave at the end of this cycle. The manner in which they have left or plan to leave the House varies. Two already found paths to the U.S. Senate: Then-Rep. Tim Scott (R-SC) was appointed to the upper chamber and then-Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA) won a special election to replace Secretary of State John Kerry. Another 17 are in the midst of running for other offices that will preclude them from running for the House again — 13 are running for the Senate (or ran, in Republican Rep. Steve Stockman’s case), two are running for governor, one is seeking a lieutenant governorship and another is hoping to become a county supervisor. Most of those exiting the House (24) will do so by retiring at the end of the term, while six have already beat them to the punch by resigning. Lastly, the late Rep. Bill Young (R) died, necessitating the hotly-contested special election in March to fill his Florida seat.
Despite all that, the degree of turnover in the House this cycle is not unusually high. Over the last 40 years, an average of 70.4 members has exited the House for one reason or another each two-year cycle. That’s about one-sixth of the total House membership every cycle. At 50 exits so far, this Congress still has a ways to go in order to produce even an average level of turnover. Of course, there might still be additional retirements or resignations, and some incumbents will lose primary and general election contests. However, while this cycle’s total will go up, it remains to be seen whether or not it will reach or surpass the average number of departures.
Table 1 below lays out data from the 93rd Congress in 1973-1974 to the present. (Thanks to Roll Call for producing its invaluable “Casualty List” over this time period.)
Table 1: Exiting the U.S. House, 93rd Congress to 113th Congress
Sources: Roll Call “Casualty List,” Crystal Ball research
Notes: *These numbers are very likely to change as some running for other offices will be defeated and some members may lose in primary or general elections; averages for these columns do not include the totals for the 113th Congress. **For the 113th Congress, the figure is the number who are running or have run for other offices (Republican Rep. Steve Stockman recently lost in a Senate primary); for all others, it’s the number defeated in runs for other offices. The data above excludes representatives of U.S. territories. To access a PDF version of this chart, click here.
In terms of retirements, the 113th Congress has just ticked above the mean, with 24 retirements versus an average of 22.7 over the past four decades. Similarly, the six resignations are also above average. Meanwhile, the single appointment to another office (Scott) about matches the 40-year mean, and the number of deaths is well below average. As for the number elected or defeated in bids for other offices, those figures will remain incomplete for the time being because we don’t know yet which soon-to-be-former members of the House will win or lose. So far, 41 members are retiring at the end of this term or running for other offices with general elections this November, which is slightly ahead of the average of 36.9 over the last 40 years.
There are plenty of eye-catching data points in this table. On average, more representatives lose races for other offices than win (8.6 versus 6.0). This may be partially because members sometimes find themselves facing off against other members in their party primaries or in general elections. This can happen not only in member-versus-member primaries just after redistricting but also in bids for other offices. Just think of the open Senate race in Georgia this cycle, where three GOP representatives are running for their party’s nomination. Although one may add on to the “elected to other office” total, at least two and possibly all three will wind up in the “defeated for other office” category when all is said and done.
For all the talk of how awful being on Capitol Hill is, this Congress is a long way from matching the 102nd (1991-1992) for members who either retired or ran for other offices. That term saw 52 members hang up their lapel pins and ride off into the sunset, while another 13 ran for offices with elections in November 1992 (that total doesn’t include Republican Rep. Steve Bartlett, who won the Dallas mayoralty in November 1991). The total number of retirements and runs for office elected in November that cycle, 65, is more than one-and-a-half times 41, which is the current total in this Congress. To put that sum in perspective, 65 retirements and standard runs for other office is a larger figure than the number of net seats House Democrats lost in the 2010 Republican wave (63). The 102nd Congress is also fascinating because it featured the largest number of total exits (116) of any in the past 40 years despite 1992 not being a very large “wave” election year in the manner of 1974, 1994, 2006 or 2010. One explanation is that 1991-92 was a redistricting cycle, which is a once-in-a-decade wrinkle that can contribute to House turnover — three of the four redistricting cycles listed above (1981-82, 1991-92 and 2011-12) featured above-average House turnover. Another explanation might be the infamous “House banking scandal,” in which many members were found to be, in essence, kiting checks without penalty in the House bank.
That said, and while its conclusion is far from written, at this point it appears the 113th Congress’ non-House election exit total (i.e. those leaving for reasons other than losing a House primary or general election) may exceed 50 (following Republican Rep. Tom Petri’s retirement announcement last week, the total is exactly 50 right now). That sum is higher than the average of 45.6, the third straight Congress to be above average. So perhaps there is a bit of truth to the “Congress is a miserable place to be” line after all. To bolster that argument, one could also note the large number of resignations over the last three congresses — a total of 26 — as opposed to the average of four per Congress over the last four decades.
But at least no one in this Congress has been expelled. Two members in the past 40 years, Rep. Michael Myers (D-PA) in 1980 and Rep. Jim Traficant (D-OH) in 2002, have been kicked out of the House. Myers was the first representative since the Civil War to be expelled after his involvement in the Abscam scandal; his acceptance of bribes in exchange for influence eventually led to a federal conviction and jail time. Two decades later, Traficant was convicted of 10 felony counts, including bribery, tax evasion and accepting kickbacks. He went on to serve seven years in prison, which didn’t stop him from running a quixotic independent campaign for his old House seat. Of course, others may have joined them in this category if they hadn’t opted to leave on their own accord in light of their transgressions (i.e. resign).
Lastly, it’s worthwhile to point out the oddest number in the table: the single instance where a seat was “vacated,” which occurred during the 97th Congress. Rep. Gladys Spellman (D-MD) suffered a heart attack just days before the 1980 election was to take place and fell into a coma. She was popular, and her popularity was enhanced by a sympathy vote: On Election Day she was reelected with over 80% of the vote despite being comatose. Unfortunately, it became clear that she would not awaken any time soon (and she never did, sadly). This situation prompted the House to declare the seat vacant, the only time medical circumstances have ever led the chamber to do so. Steny Hoyer (D) defeated Spellman’s husband in the Democratic primary and won the special election. (The power of widows to win the House seats of their departed husbands has long been noted, but this apparently didn’t extend to a widower.) Hoyer is now the House Democratic Whip, having served as majority leader when Democrats controlled the chamber during Nancy Pelosi’s speakership.
It just goes to show that while there are a lot of odd ways to exit the House, there are also some odd ways to enter it.