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Pulling Out of Politics: How Members Retire From the Hill

Every lawmaker handles announcements a little differently

Florida Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen didn’t tell leadership or the NRCC she was leaving before making her announcement. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Florida Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen didn’t tell leadership or the NRCC she was leaving before making her announcement. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

It’s getting to be that time of year when family moments over holiday recesses inspire lawmakers to think twice about making the weekly slog back to Capitol Hill.

Sixteen current House members have already announced they’re not running for anything next year — short of the 22 members, on average, who have retired each cycle since 1976 without seeking another office. Illinois Rep. Luis V. Gutiérrez is expected to make a retirement announcement Tuesday.

“I would be shocked if, after holidays, you didn’t see anyone else say, ‘Hey, I’m done’ — in both chambers,” a Republican strategist said before Thanksgiving.

How lawmakers engineer their exits, though — including who they tell and when — is a highly individualized process.


Coming off a grueling 2014 schedule and a 30-point re-election victory, Rep. Chris Gibson took an unusual route in 2015: the New York Republican planned to announce that his third term would be his last the same day he was sworn into the 114th Congress.

It leaked the night before.

An Inside Look at Congressional Retirements

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Hours after Gibson told leadership, Roll Call broke the news, citing two anonymous GOP sources.

“Of course, I was disappointed,” Gibson said by phone Saturday. “Mostly because it really gave the wrong impression.” Reporters were calling him late into the night, suspecting something was wrong — perhaps with his health.

Just shy of his four term-limit pledge, Gibson said he had a “wonderful” 2014 Christmas vacation with his wife and teenage kids. He wanted to spend more time with his family.


What’s mocked as a euphemism for involuntary departures in other corridors of power is generally genuine on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers often travel hundreds of miles from home every week.

That’s why the time after any recess back home traditionally sparks retirement announcements.

Of course, lawmakers usually serve more than one day of a new term before announcing it will be their last, but the decisions Gibson had to make about who to tell and when, how to handle the media and how to help staff land on their feet are ones all retiring lawmakers have to make — in their own ways.

Telling all

For many, the decision starts with family. After that, the phone chains vary.

Former Speaker John A. Boehner famously shocked much of his staff, the National Republican Congressional Committee, his fellow lawmakers and the Capitol Hill press corps when he made his resignation announcement in 2015.

“Leadership likes you to give them [a] heads-up, but that doesn’t always happen,” said former Virginia GOP Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, who announced in January 2008 that he wouldn’t run again that fall.

“If you want to do the courteous thing and give a few people a heads-up, whether in your district or down here, inevitably the story will leak,” said Rep. Charlie Dent, who announced in September he wouldn’t seek re-election in 2018.

The Pennsylvania Republican had told leadership, including the NRCC, and some people at home. But then the story got out, and he sent out a pre-written statement a few days earlier than planned.

Other lawmakers tell only their staffs before a public announcement.

“They should know before they read about it,” said former Rep. Frank R. Wolf, a Virginia Republican who retired in 2015 after 17 terms. “I called the leadership right as I was putting out the statement.”

This year, Florida GOP Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen’s retirement announcement in April was a surprise — to everyone except her staff.

“I never did get around to doing that,” she said when asked if she’d informed leadership or the NRCC.

“My husband and I discussed it, I told my congressional family, had a press conference, and I guess that’s when they found out,” she said.

“My seat is a coveted one by both parties, and if I had told the NRCC, they might have leaked it before my local press would have gotten the news, and I didn’t want that,” Ros-Lehtinen said. She didn’t tell her lawmaker friends either.

Rank-and-file members, especially in seats considered safe by virtue of incumbency, are sometimes in for a longer conversation if they tell their party’s campaign committee chairmen before announcing.

Davis, a former NRCC chairman, remembers those conversations: “Sometimes you just say, ‘Can you wait a little bit?’ Or say, ‘Well, who do you got? Are you leaving me a mess?’”

Leadership can try to head off some of these retirement announcements by reaching out to term-limited committee chairmen or others who need a reason to stick around another term.

Seven GOP lawmakers are in their third and final terms as committee chairmen, and three of them have already announced their retirements.

“Right now,” said former NRCC Chairman Thomas M. Reynolds of New York, “is a good time for leadership to be on their toes.”

Texas GOP Rep. Lamar Smith said his term-limited post as chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee was a major factor in his decision to retire after 16 terms. He had already served as chairman of the Ethics and Judiciary committees.

“I thought it would be a little too greedy to try for another committee,” Smith said.

Term limits aren’t deal breakers for all chairmen. Rep. Bill Shuster is in his last term chairing the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee but said he plans to run again. The Pennsylvania Republican noted he could potentially chair the Armed Services Committee in a few years.

When to say you’re out

Ros-Lehtinen and her husband made an impromptu decision on the morning of April 30.

“Dexter and I just looked at each other and said, you know, ‘We weren’t going to do this forever and how about today?’ And I said, ‘Today is a good day,’” she said.

Dent had been thinking about retiring since the October 2013 government shutdown. He made his decision in June and decided he would wait to announce after Labor Day.

He also did not want to become a lame-duck lawmaker too soon, especially as a member of the influential Appropriations Committee with a September funding deadline looming. But when the spending battles turned out to be less contentious than expected, Dent announced his retirement Sept. 7.

Gibson’s chief of staff and district director at first tried to convince him to wait to announce.

“Their initial reaction was very typical for Capitol Hill, which is, ‘But you may want to wait until you’re in your last six or eight months,’” Gibson recalled.

Gibson said no. He didn’t want to raise money to maintain the appearance of being a candidate.

The announcement timeline often has something to do with the state’s filing deadlines and the desire to let successor candidates get off the ground. Texas has an earlier deadline, which may be why six members of the delegation have already announced they will be leaving next year.

Living with the announcement

Ros-Lehtinen walked out of the Capitol on the last day of session before Thanksgiving with no regrets.

“It’s wonderful to announce your retirement early and to get to enjoy all the nice words people say about you because they know that you’re going to be out of here,” she said.

Democratic-Farmer-Labor Rep. Tim Walz is running a gubernatorial campaign in Minnesota but said he can still get stuff done in the House, even after announcing his retirement in March. 

“It’s not as if you just get cut off,” he said of his relationships with leadership and the Democratic Caucus.

Not taking in money for re-election does mean members lose their currency as lawmakers with certain constituencies. “Who does cut you off is a lot of the lobbying community,” Walz said.

Smith thinks his impending retirement is making him even more active in his chairmanship duties. He joked to the Science Committee staff that he’ll now be holding a hearing every week instead of every other week.

But it can also become harder to get things done as staffers begin to eye their next opportunities. Many departing lawmakers have made placing staff a priority, with Gibson saying he kept a spreadsheet of each staffer and his or her professional goals.

“My job is to place all of them where they want to be placed before we go,” said Walz, a former high school teacher.

— Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.

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