Opinion: Welcome to the ‘dumb and dumber’ Congress

Editor’s Note: Douglas Heye is the ex-deputy chief of staff to former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, a GOP strategist and a CNN political commentator. Follow him on Twitter @dougheye. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.

In a Senate hearing Tuesday, Republican Sen. Markwayne Mullin of Oklahoma rose to challenge Sean O’Brien, general president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, to a “stand your butt up” stand-off.

Douglas Heye - Jeremy Freeman
Douglas Heye - Jeremy Freeman

On the House side, House Oversight Chairman Rep. James Comer called his Democratic colleague Rep. Jared Moskowitz of Florida a “liar” and a “smurf,” while Moskowitz suggested Comer needed a “mental health day.”

GOP Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene tweeted emojis of basketballs and baseballs to suggest what her Republican colleague, Rep. Darrell Issa, um, does not have (I think you get the picture).

And Tennessee Republican Rep. Tim Burchett accused former Speaker Kevin McCarthy of elbowing him with a “clean kidney shot,” a charge McCarthy denies.

These events — all of which happened before lunch was over — are more and more typical of daily life in Congress.

Apologies won’t be forthcoming, as they could be portrayed as showing weakness. But whether silly or serious, these actions demonstrate why we’ve seen a dramatic uptick in another recent congressional trend: retirements.

Since last week’s elections, more than half a dozen members of Congress and one senator announced their retirement. Some of this is natural.

Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia headed for the exit, while Democratic Rep. Abigail Spanberger of Virginia announced her run for governor in 2025 in lieu of seeking reelection. Both faced exceedingly difficult paths to reelection. But more and more, we are seeing members, fed up with congressional shenanigans, pull the plug and point the finger at their colleagues.

“Congress is not the institution that I went to 19 years ago. It’s a very different place today. We’re spending more time doing less and the American people aren’t being served,” New York Democratic Rep. Brian Higgins said earlier this week after announcing he’s stepping down next February. “There was a time where leadership could discern what was serious and what was not. Unfortunately, those days are over.”

His Republican colleague Rep. Debbie Lesko of Arizona announced last month she won’t seek reelection, saying, “Right now, Washington, DC is broken; it is hard to get anything done.”

Republican Rep. Victoria Spartz of Indiana, who initially announced her retirement a mere 25 months after taking office, last month released a statement teasing immediate retirement if no debt commission were formed by year-end, saying, “I will not continue sacrificing my children for this circus with a complete absence of leadership, vision, and spine,” adding, “I cannot save this Republic alone.”

Retirements happen in Congress usually for one of three reasons — a member thinks, after a long career, it’s time; they’re running for a higher office and/or announcing a retirement to avoid losing in what looks to be a wave year unfavorable to their party.

Often these retirement announcements happen after Thanksgiving or Christmas holidays, when members have had time with their family (and away from Washington). This cycle, no electoral “wave” appears on the horizon to scare a large block of members from their seats like animals scurrying before an earthquake.

No, their message is clear. More members of Congress are simply saying, “Take this job and shove it.”

The actions of the House of recent weeks — three weeks of stalled legislating because of multiple rounds trying to replace a deposed speaker surely play a role. The House’s 10 consecutive weeks in session — which ended Wednesday in a whimper as a procedural vote to advance an appropriations bill failed and members were sent home — have surely raised political temperatures and tempers. But the reality is that Congress has become a terrible workplace, and members and staff are feeling those effects.

As a former House leadership staffer, I remember well walking out of my office in the Capitol as fireworks went off at midnight and December 31, 2012, became January 1, 2013. We were trying, unsuccessfully, to pass an extension of the Bush tax cuts, with Republican infighting ensuring our own defeat.

“I gotta get outta here,” I sighed to myself.

Since then, it’s only gotten worse, and every step of the way, the word “fight” was a rallying cry.

We fought an impossible fight to end Obamacare in 2013, which led to that year’s government shutdown and more losing by infighting. Then came Donald Trump, the ultimate “fighter,” regardless of results. The Covid-19 pandemic, which further divided Congress. And the January 6 attack on the US Capitol.

It’s exhausting to think about, much less live, as a member of Congress. And when you talk to congressional members and staff, they’re likely to be exhausted. And miserable.

Add to that a 15-round speaker vote in January (which nearly had its own fistfight) and all legislative activity put on hold for a political vanity effort to depose a speaker for the first time in our nation’s history for the unforgivable act of trying to keep the government open.

Commenting Tuesday on the day’s events, Rep. and former Speaker Pro Tempore Patrick McHenry said, “There are dumb days on Capitol Hill and there are dumber days on Capitol Hill. And this is one of the dumbest I’ve seen in quite a long time.”

Is it any surprise members want to leave?

Worse? Their replacements. Recruiting quality candidates has become harder. People running to become famous as troublemakers are more likely to win. It’s a bipartisan problem, but a much more acute one for Republicans.

There’s a political challenge here. It’s massively easier to identify problems than solutions. And proposed solutions — changing our political and media incentive structure so new members do not become celebrities while hardworking members remain obscure (have you ever seen Florida Rep. Gus Bilirakis on TV?), improving how district lines are drawn and candidates chosen and turning state and local parties away from becoming baskets of extremism — seem unattainable. Far from being attacked, bipartisan answers, when possible, should be celebrated.

For now, hopefully, there is a respite from the insanity. The House passed a stopgap bill Tuesday to keep the government open. The Senate will next need to approve the measure. Members can go home and temperatures can come down. Speaker Mike Johnson provided members of the Republican conference with wise counsel: “You have to be wise about choosing the fights.”

But don’t be surprised if we see more congressional retirements in coming weeks.

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