Today’s big Capitol Hill bombshell: the retirements of South Carolina’s Trey Gowdy and powerful Philadelphia Democrat Bob Brady, bringing the total number of House retirements into the 50s (two-thirds of them Republicans). What does it all mean? Here are six takeaways:
First, of course, House Republican retirements are both a cause and effect of declining odds of the GOP retaining control of the House, although seats such as Gowdy’s (and probably Brady’s on the Democratic side) are likely to stay safe. More open seats removes the advantages of incumbency and will spread thin Republican resources defending seats that may be held but with a lot more effort than usual, and incumbents without the stomach for a tough race are looking for the exits.
Second, term limits for committee chairs matter. Rodney Frelinghuysen of New Jersey, Chair of the Appropriations Committee, retired Monday; Gowdy becomes the ninth of 21 committee chairs to step down from the House, many of them term-limited by internal caucus limits from continuing to run their committees even if Republicans keep control of the House. The days of chairmen who ruled their fiefdoms for decades are over (at least as long as Republicans are in charge), and it turns out that term limits for committee chairs are pretty effective at forcing steady turnover without the heavier-handed resort to banning voters from continuing to re-elect long-term Representatives.
Third, redistricting matters, too. A court threw out Pennsylvania’s congressional map last week, and retirements have been running particularly high in the Pennsylvania delegation (six so far out of 18 seats), as even safe (if scandal-plagued) veterans like Brady look at the challenges of running on a new map for 2018 that will then be replaced by another new map by 2022 – one that, in Pennsylvania’s case, is likely to have one fewer House seat to go around. Even Representatives who may think they can ride out the storm of 2018 may decide that reintroducing themselves to new voters in the next few years — or, for that matter, throwing their weight into behind-the-scenes redistricting fights to keep their districts from getting carved up — are more trouble than they are worth.
Fourth, being a Republican in Congress under Trump is just not much fun. Typically, the out-party gets to raise their profile with investigations and fights with the White House (few congressmen did this more aggressively under Obama than Gowdy), while the in-party gets to actually govern. But Republicans have struggled to settle on a legislative agenda that can pass anything through the Senate, and defending the Trump administration from various investigations and public relations disasters is wearying work. Republicans who don’t want to publicly cross Trump may still not want to have to defend him anymore, either. So a number of these retirements may be delayed reactions to Trump’s nomination and then surprise 2016 victory.
Fifth, everybody is focused on how all these retirements — over 50 in the House, four so far in the Senate, and 17 governors — will affect the balance of power between the parties. But they also represent a huge opportunity to test the balance of power within the parties, as we could see a blizzard of contested primaries just for open seats, even leaving aside challenges to incumbents. On the Republican side, that will test both the relative strength of the party establishment and the question of whether the Trump/Bannon populist wing has permanently supplanted the conservative/Tea Party wing as the main challenger to the establishment. On the Democratic side, the progressive-populist insurgency that backed Bernie Sanders will be chomping at the bit to flex its own muscles — as indeed, Brady was facing a primary challenge on his left. A year from now, we may know a lot more about who comes out on top of these battles.
Sixth, don’t cry yet for Gowdy, a former prosecutor who cited in his statement his desire to return to the judicial system. Judge Dennis Shedd of the Fourth Circuit — a federal appeals judge from South Carolina, appointed by George W. Bush — retired effective yesterday, and no nominee has yet been announced. Don’t be surprised if Gowdy is Trump’s pick to replace Shedd for a life-tenured position (and maybe an outside shot someday at the Supreme Court).