Ken Buck and the exodus from Congress, briefly explained

Republican Rep. Ken Buck, a critic of GOP impeachment efforts, is the latest to leave early.

Ken Buck and the exodus from Congress, briefly explained0

Rep. Ken Buck (R-CO), one of the latest members to head for the exits, attends a hearing. Getty Images Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

Colorado Republican Ken Buck, a Freedom Caucus member who has called out the party’s right flank on impeachment, is the latest in a string of GOP members to head for the exits.

Buck had already announced his retirement last year, but he surprised Congress — including House Republican leadership — by saying that he’ll leave early, effective mid-March. That decision narrows House Republicans’ already-slim majority even further, meaning they’ll only hold 218 seats of 435, and that they can afford to lose just two votes if they want to pass any measures on a partisan basis.

Buck joins former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) in the wave of high-profile resignations in recent months as slightly more institutionalist House Republicans have left amid party dysfunction and extremism. “It is the worst year of the nine years and three months that I’ve been in Congress, and having talked to former members, it’s the worst year in 40, 50 years to be in Congress,” Buck told CNN.

Thus far, 43 House members and eight senators have announced that they won’t be seeking another term but they’ll finish out this one. Additionally, eight House members and two Senators have left their seats early due to factors including retirement, death, and expulsion.

Overall, these departures are generally in line with past trends. The number of House retirements this cycle — people who will complete their term but won’t run for reelection — is slightly lower than in 2022 and 2018, but higher than 2020, according to Ballotpedia. The figure in the Senate, meanwhile, is slightly higher this year compared to those three years. If these retirements continue at this pace, it’s possible the total number this cycle will exceed past records. “I think it’s the next three people that leave that they’re going to be worried about,” Buck told Axios regarding his colleagues’ concerns about his departure.

Of the lawmakers retiring or leaving early, there are also patterns in the types of Congress members who are choosing to do so. In the House, several Republicans who’ve announced retirements or resignations are longtime lawmakers like Buck known for adhering to congressional norms and traditions rather than the more disruptive tactics of the far right. Some of the GOP retirees in both chambers have expressed concerns about the increasingly Trump-centric and partisan direction their party is taking. And multiple lawmakers who are retiring have cited general congressional dysfunction, from difficulty passing major legislation to petty infighting, as a central reason for their departure.

“I’m sure the leadership chaos on the Republican side is not helping keep members in Congress,” Kyle Kondik, a political analyst and managing editor at Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia, told Vox in December. “Overall, though, the House just does not seem like a very pleasant place to be.”

Beyond the issue of the GOP’s intraparty tensions, personal ambitions are also a key motivator for many of the lawmakers leaving their posts, including a number of House members eager to pursue Senate and gubernatorial runs. And for older lawmakers, age and a push for generational change were part of that decision as well.

As these departures continue to pile up, here are a few of the reasons lawmakers are calling it quits.

Party polarization

As the House and Senate GOP conferences have become more alt-right friendly, a number of moderate and institutionalist (meaning those interested in preserving norms and traditional procedures when it comes to passing policy) Republicans have decided to leave, with some signaling that there’s a limited place for their vision in their party.

Buck, for example, is among those who cited the GOP’s extremism on this issue as a specific reason for his retirement. “Too many Republican leaders are lying to America, claiming that the 2020 election was stolen, describing January 6 as an unguided tour of the Capitol, and asserting that the ensuing prosecutions are a weaponization of our justice system,” Buck said in a video announcing his retirement decision.

McCarthy and his ally Rep. Patrick McHenry — who served as acting speaker after McCarthy was deposed and who is also leaving — are among the Republicans who, though they backed Trump, were slightly more institutionalist as well. Both members opposed shutting down the government as leverage for funding cuts, for example, and both struggled with the demands of an ascendant far right that made it clear the duo’s style of politics was out of fashion. Rep. Kay Granger, the head of the House Appropriations Committee who’s long been steeped in policy-making processes, is among those stepping down, too.

“What’s very pronounced for 2024 is we’re seeing a raft of retirements on the part of more institutionalist members,” Cook Political Report’s David Wasserman told Axios in November. “I think that list on the Republican side will grow in the next month.”

In the upper chamber, Sen. Mitt Romney (UT), the only Republican to vote to convict Trump in his impeachment trial twice, is also a notable retirement on the GOP side who has openly criticized the former president and his influence on the party.

“Look, my wing of the party talks about policy, and about issues that will make a difference to the lives of the American people,” Romney told ABC News’s Rachel Scott. “The Trump wing of the party talks about resentments of various kinds and getting even and settling scores and revisiting the 2020 election.”


A byproduct of the political polarization in Congress has also been an increased level of dysfunction. This past term, that dysfunction has been especially apparent in the House, where members struggled to elect a speaker, threatened to enable a debt default, and deposed McCarthy over his unwillingness to shut down the government.

Frustration coupled with polarization has led to an increasingly toxic environment, with members on both sides calling each other names, accusing members of the other party of being hatemongers, using procedural tactics to punish one another, engaging in bullying, and even reportedly participating in altercations.

“Right now, Washington, DC, is broken,” Rep. Debbie Lesko (R-AZ) said in a statement about her departure. “It is hard to get anything done.”

Multiple lawmakers have referenced this dysfunction as they’ve discussed their departures, emphasizing that the lack of productivity is related to their dissatisfaction with the job. “The growing divide between Democrats and Republicans is paralyzing Congress and worsening our nation’s problems,” Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) said in a video announcing his retirement.

That dysfunction has compounded some lawmakers’ willingness to take on the sacrifices that come with the role, which include extended amounts of time away from family, long hours, and a contentious work environment.

This is the “most unsatisfying period in my time in Congress because of the absolute chaos and the lack of any serious commitment to effective governance,” Rep. Dan Kildee (D-MI) told the New York Times. “This feeling that the sacrifice we’re all making in order to be in Washington, to be witness to this chaos, is pretty difficult to make.”

Personal ambition

Others who’ve announced their departures are doing so for a simple reason: They’re interested in higher office.

In the House, nine of the Democratic members who’ve opted out of reelection are now vying for the Senate, including Reps. Katie Porter, Adam Schiff, and Barbara Lee in California; Rep. Ruben Gallego in Arizona; Rep. Elissa Slotkin in Michigan; Rep. Colin Allred in Texas; Rep. David Trone in Maryland; Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester in Delaware; and Rep. Andy Kim in New Jersey. On the Republican side, Rep. Alex Mooney in West Virginia, Rep. Jim Banks in Indiana, and Rep. John Curtis in Utah are similarly vying for Senate seats next year.

Some lawmakers are also pursuing other state-level offices including Democratic Rep. Jeff Jackson and Republican Rep. Dan Bishop, both of whom are running for attorney general in North Carolina. Meanwhile, Democratic Rep. Abigail Spanberger in Virginia is running for governor and Democratic Rep. Dean Phillips has thrown his hat into the presidential primary against President Joe Biden.

This pattern is less evident on the Senate side, in which seven of the eight retirees are not seeking public office; just Republican Sen. Mike Braun has said he’s running for Indiana governor. In the House, 25 of the members who are retiring aren’t seeking public office.

Electoral challenges

Finally, some retirements are related to members getting drawn out of their districts by gerrymandering, which has made it impossible for them to win reelection. Others were poised to deal with contentious primaries and general elections as party polarization has gotten worse.

North Carolina Democratic Rep. Jeff Jackson has discussed the issue candidly, saying, “I’ve officially been drawn out of my congressional district by a small group of politicians,” in a video on the subject. His North Carolina district has since been redrawn by the legislature to lean much more heavily to the right, a change that takes effect this year. Rep. Kathy Manning, another Democrat of North Carolina, has seen the same thing happen to her district and announced that she won’t run for reelection.

“Politicians should not choose their voters; voters should choose their representatives,” she said in a statement. Both their cases underscore how a Republican-led state legislature is attempting to skew electoral maps in favor of their party’s candidates.

Other lawmakers among the retirements would have faced fierce reelection fights, with Sen. Joe Manchin likely to face an intense battle in the heavily red state were he to run again. Sen. Mitt Romney was also among those who were set to have an aggressive conservative primary challenge if he decided to pursue another term.

Update, March 13, 2 pm ET: This story was originally published on December 8 and has been updated to include news of Rep. Ken Buck’s resignation.


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