Retiring Congress Members See Rough Roads Ahead. They Won’t Miss the Gridlock.
WASHINGTON — Seated in his rapidly emptying office, Senator Richard M. Burr, Republican of North Carolina, ticked through the frustrations that had piled up in recent years: party leaders devaluing committee work, an institution reluctant to embrace new ideas and unnamed colleagues unwilling to collaborate or brush up on the details of legislation.
“Can we be a visionary body versus a crisis management institution?” Mr. Burr asked of the Congress where he had served for nearly three decades.
Mr. Burr will no longer be in Congress to answer that question, as he joins nearly a half-dozen Senate colleagues and close to three dozen House lawmakers in voluntarily leaving Capitol Hill. And while each legislative session always brings a round of retirements, the departure of experienced politicians this year is set to reverberate even more starkly as Washington braces for a new House Republican majority that has expressed little interest in striking deals with President Biden and a Democratic majority in the Senate.
“I’m not willing to hoist up the white flag at this point,” said Senator Mitt Romney of Utah, one of the returning Republicans who found himself in several private negotiations to arrive at compromise legislation seen as out of reach this past year. But asked about the departing lawmakers, he conceded, “No question — it’s going to be very hard.”
Without the legislative savvy of senators like Patrick J. Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, or Roy Blunt, Republican of Missouri, lawmakers and aides fear that even the basics of governing will be unattainable, let alone making deals on sprawling, trillion-dollar spending packages or overhauls of outdated legislation.
“There are far more members here who are engaged in performance art and performance art only now, and they really have no interest in governing,” said Representative John Yarmuth of Kentucky, the departing Democratic chairman of the House Budget Committee who counted the $1.9 trillion pandemic plan that became law in 2021 among his greatest successes. No Republicans backed the measure, and the incoming House majority has pledged votes to roll back increased Internal Revenue Service funding in Democrats’ climate, health and tax law.
“The next two years are really going to be brutally painful, and they’re going to be painful for the country,” Mr. Yarmuth predicted.
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The loss of institutional knowledge and decades of experience will be particularly acute in the Senate, where Republicans like Mr. Burr repeatedly crossed the aisle to either negotiate or support bipartisan accords to advance gun legislation, shore up health programs or invest in the nation’s deteriorating infrastructure. Their votes often proved critical to ensuring that the government remained fully funded and open, shielding compromise bills from the threat of a filibuster.
“If you’re a Republican or a Democrat, and you say you’re going to have your way up here on something, generally, you’re wrong,” said Senator Richard C. Shelby of Alabama, the top Republican on the Appropriations Committee, who will see his former aide, Katie Britt, take his seat this week after muscling a final government funding package into law.
“They’ve always said the next generation is terrible in America, and that’s not necessarily so,” he added.
But the incoming class of senators may not demonstrate the same appetite for bipartisan work. The institutional memory of a functioning, if often messy, legislative branch — passing budget resolutions, marking up legislation in committee, hammering out differences between the House and the Senate — is also fading with the departure of more than a century of combined experience.
“There were unwritten rules that applied — quite different than they are today,” Mr. Leahy, who was first elected in 1974, said in his farewell speech to the Senate. “Senators didn’t engage in scorched-earth politics because they knew they’d return the day after an election to a Senate that only worked if you found and stood on common ground.”
He spoke about the years spent forging friendships and relationships with lawmakers in both parties. “I fear those days may be gone, but I pray just temporarily,” Mr. Leahy said. “Because if we don’t start working together more, if we don’t know and respect each other, the world’s greatest deliberative body will sink slowly into irrelevance.”
Several retiring lawmakers used their final floor speeches to make pointed remarks about how power and legislative responsibility were increasingly centralized with leaders and their aides, or the importance of putting their oaths of office ahead of politics.
“We just have an incredible amount of wasted talent,” Mr. Blunt lamented in his final speech on the Senate floor.
“The only thing worse than the way we do it would be not doing it,” he added. “Just decide not to get our work done and see what happens.”
In the House, the impact of the retiring lawmakers is already evident on the Republican side of the aisle: Representative Adam Kinzinger, who is stepping down from his Illinois seat, voted to raise the debt ceiling in 2021 and avoid a catastrophic default on the nation’s debt. Seven of the nine Republicans who voted last month to keep the government open are leaving Congress, either defeated by a primary opponent or getting out while the getting is good.
Despite their own burnished records of bipartisanship and constructive achievement, several lawmakers said they had grown dissatisfied with how legislating had largely been ceded to leadership. They were also concerned that fears about retribution from each party’s ideological base had derailed longstanding ambitions to change immigration laws or challenge the power of the nation’s tech companies.
This Congress also had razor-thin majorities in both chambers, which helped fuel the increasing gridlock as competing priorities clogged the legislative calendar.
Describing how she had pictured the workings of the capital before arriving a decade ago, Representative Cheri Bustos, Democrat of Illinois, said, “There would be this real give and take, a deep dive into what the nation’s priorities were.” Laughing, she added, “That is not what happens in Washington.”
After years spending weekends in her district, championing bipartisan legislation and directing millions of federal dollars home to organizations and constituents in a swing seat, Ms. Bustos cited the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol and the deep psychological wounds it had inflicted on lawmakers and her own family as significant factors in the decision not to seek another term. In the days after the attack, several Democrats refused to work with any Republican who had opposed certifying Mr. Biden’s victory, and relationships remain frayed.
“I still remember my husband saying, ‘Things are not going to get better out there,’” she said. “We govern to the extremes — the American public will continue with its disgust with how Congress conducts itself.”
In their final weeks, retiring lawmakers set about packing up their offices, attending farewell parties and laboring to send one last priority into law. (Mr. Burr, notorious for going sockless in the austere Capitol halls, was figuring out what to do with the socks people had given him over the years.) They were also reflecting on the accomplishments of their tenure and hopes that their legislation would last long after their departure, even in a fractious Congress.
“That, to me, is the loneliest position to be in,” Mr. Burr said. “If I didn’t have anything, and really wonder if I’d wasted 28 years of my life.”
Catie Edmondson and Carl Hulse contributed reporting.