There are really just three ways to give up a seat in Congress on your own timetable: retire, resign or quit. And the method with the least attractive connotations has become particularly popular in the last decade, especially among Republicans.
Those who use the term “retirement” properly are lawmakers who decline to run for re-election but complete the term for which the voters chose them before returning to civilian life, whether as money-makers or golf club denizens. Departures are best labeled “resignations” when senators or House members are forced to up and leave by particularly good, or ruinously bad, professional circumstances — elevated to higher positions in public service, most often, or politically poisoned by moral exposures or criminal failings.
Then there are the quitters. They’re the smallest but also the fastest growing — and arguably the most questionable — of the bunch.
These are the folks who give up their positions of public trust ahead of schedule because something more appealing has presented itself in the private sector. They have seen greener pastures on the other side of the revolving door, and they are unwilling to complete their elected duties before going there.
Watch: Quitting Congress For Cash Is a Recent Phenomenon
The most recent is Charlie Dent. He’s abandoning his House seat next month with a quarter of the time left in his seventh term — secured by persuading 191,000 people in southeastern Pennsylvania that he was good for a two-year renewal on his government contract, and after spending $1.7 million of other people’s money — in order to get a head start on his new career as a cable TV news analyst specializing in centrist Republican criticism of President Donald Trump.
He will be the third such House GOP quitter in this Congress, joining Jason Chaffetz, who fulfilled only six months of his elected obligation to Utah before joining Fox News, and Pat Tiberi, who ditched the second half of this term to go back to Ohio and run an association of the state’s biggest businesses.
To be sure, the roster is smaller than several other membership-in-transition lists that have made deservedly bigger headlines.
There are the five men forced to resign from the 115th Congress so far because of their inappropriate behavior with women. There are now six who have resigned to take top jobs in the Trump administration, with Jim Bridenstine giving up his Oklahoma House seat Monday to take the reins at NASA. And there are the two dozen Republicans, eight current committee chairmen and Speaker Paul D. Ryan among them, who are not running for new House terms in the face of stiff midterm headwinds for their party.
Watch: Ryan Announces He Will Not Seek Re-Election
But Dent, Tiberi and Chaffetz represent more than a one-off spurt of job abandonment.
Instead, they are only the most recent additions to a long line of midterm deserters that has steadily thickened over the past quarter-century, and is stocked overwhelmingly with Republicans. Dent will be the eighth GOP member since 2013 (compared with zero Democrats) to say goodbye early for no other reason than to launch new careers they imagine will be cushier and more rewarding — and are certain will be more remunerative.
Chasing the bucks
Back in 1978, an impending change in federal pension law made it advantageous to leave the government payroll by Dec. 31, prompting 11 retiring House members to resign a few days before their terms expired in January. That was the closest thing to a “feathering his own nest” congressional resignation for the next 15 years.
The first lawmaker in modern times to quit midterm for a more lucrative career in the private sector was Bill Gradison, who vacated his Cincinnati-based House seat right after the start of his 10th term in 1993, when he was 64, to become the top lobbyist for the medical insurance industry as it girded to combat President Bill Clinton’s plans to remake the health care system.
A year later, Oklahoma Democrat Glenn English cleared out his House desk to run the association representing rural electric cooperatives, and the dam was broken.
Between then and the current Congress, 25 members quit during their terms, spurning their donors and their voters in order to take better-paying posts.
Just 10 were Democrats, four of whom moved into not-for-profit worlds while the rest moved on to lobbying shops, law firms or a corporate C-suite. But only two have done so in the last decade. After being upset in the 2008 Maryland primary, Albert R. Wynn salved his loser’s anger by decamping six months early to the K Street firm now known as Greenberg Traurig. And one day after citing challenges in his personal life as the reason he needed to move up his House “retirement” by five months in 2012, California Democrat Dennis Cardoza was named managing director of the lobbying powerhouse Manatt, Phelps & Phillips. (He’s now running the West Coast practice of Foley & Lardner.)
Wynn and Cardoza were among four Democrats and six Republicans — most prominently Eric Cantor, the House majority leader who quit to become vice chairman of the investment bank Moelis & Co. a few weeks after losing his 2014 Virginia primary — who accelerated previously decided end dates. All the rest, about two-thirds of the quitters, decamped from the Hill early enough in their terms that they hadn’t yet faced a deadline for deciding whether to seek re-election.
Almost all the Republican quitters did so to get a head start in the cliché post-congressional career of lobbying and advocacy. Most prominent among them are the three who abandoned the Senate: Trent Lott, the onetime majority leader from Mississippi, the first senator ever to quit to be a lobbyist when he left early in his fourth term to hang his own K Street shingle in 2007; Florida’s Mel Martinez, who didn’t last five years before signing on with DLA Piper; and Jim DeMint, who multiplied his salary sixfold by becoming president of the Heritage Foundation instead of tackling four years of his second term representing South Carolina.
To be fair, Cardoza was not the only quitter whose stated rationale about addressing family troubles was quickly eclipsed by the realities of making money. It took Kentucky’s Geoff Davis in 2012, and fellow House Republican Larry Combest in 2003, only a few months to put their personal affairs in order before opening their own influence-peddling shops.
Before Chaffetz and Dent, who’s weighing several talking head offers, a TV network was the destination of just one quitter — Susan Molinari, who skipped the last 16 months of her deal with the constituents of Staten Island to be a CBS News weekend anchor in 1997. (She’s now the top D.C. lobbyist for Google.) After walking away from the House early in his fourth term in 2001, Joe Scarborough mostly practiced law in Florida for two years before signing on with MSNBC full time.
The core signal sent by the lengthening list of quitters is unmistakable: a seat in Congress is not as precious as it was once, a rare commodity to be traded only at regularly scheduled intervals.
Today’s members seem more and more likely to wilt in the face of the legislative gridlock and partisan bitterness they confront daily, combined with the fundraising pressures and personal compromises required of them (no pay raise in a decade, for starters). Sometimes that fatigue produces a career crisis before it’s time to decide whether to subject themselves to the voters’ say once again, or else a get-me-out-of-here anxiousness soon after a decision to depart voluntarily.
And in the Washington of today — where perseverance and respect for the institutions you serve have become faded virtues — style points are not taken away because of Capitol job abandonment. Casting aside one of the world’s most influential positions of public trust to grab a guaranteed better paycheck, and a much more predictable schedule, will never be held against a lobbyist who routinely comes through for his clients.
That Republicans have realized this by far the most often in the past decade is only somewhat a surprise. On the one hand, their cloakroom culture emphasizes teamwork, and personal responsibility is elemental to the code of conduct they’d apply to the nation. But at the same time, respect for the capitalist forces of supply and demand is at the core of their political brand.
So perhaps it makes sense that Ryan’s determination to “run through the tape” — the way he describes his commitment to holding his Wisconsin seat and remaining speaker for the whole term to which his constituents and the House elected him — has drawn almost as much ridicule as respect from GOP colleagues eager to get going on their next fratricidal leadership smackdown.