Please Don’t Call It an Exodus From Congress

by Nathan L. Gonzales February 21, 2014 · 3:48 PM EST

Two more members of Congress decided this would be their final term, but their exits don’t change the battle for the majority in the House. And contrary to an all-too-common media narrative, their departures do not signal an exodus from the House of Representatives.

“Two Democrats Join Exodus From U.S. Congress,” according to a recent Reuters headline and accompanying story, which described “44 Members of the House and Senate” leaving Congress after this year. But that is very misleading because it conveys the sense that we are witnessing an atypical, wholesale exit from Washington. But that’s simply not borne out by the data.

This cycle, congressional retirements have come in bunches, with House members announcing their decisions within days (or sometimes hours) of each other.

Reps. Gloria Negrete McLeod and Rush D. Holt are two good examples of the importance of making distinctions when counting retirements. I don’t consider Negrete McLeod, a California Democrat, a retirement since she is running for another office — granted, one that is outside the Beltway. I am counting the New Jersey Democrat as a true retirement since he is not seeking another office this year.

But the only way the Reuters reporter (and others) can come up with a higher number of “retirements” is to include House members who are running for another office, including the dozen representatives who are running for the Senate. It’s not an exodus from Congress if members are trying to stay in Washington and merely move their offices from one side of the Hill to the other.

With Holt, now 19 House members are retiring without seeking another office. And that number is remarkably average so far. From 1976 to 2012, the average and median number of retirements was 22, as calculated with the help of Roll Call’s Casualty List.

If we remove the four elections ending in “2” during that time period because of the potential that retirement decisions in those cycles are disproportionately affected by redistricting, the results were very similar. There were an average of 21 retirements and median of 20 retirements in years not immediately following redistricting.

Some filing deadlines have come and gone, shrinking the pool of potential retirements. But while there still could be a few more members who announce their exit, it is unlikely to be an extraordinary number of retirements this cycle.

Even if there are more retirements, they are certainly not guaranteed to affect the fight for the House.

On Tuesday, Holt announced he will retire from his 12th District at the end of the year. But Barack Obama carried the district with 69 percent and 66 percent in the past two presidential elections, so Democrats are not at risk of losing the seat in November. Rothenberg Political Report rates New Jersey’s 12th District as Safe for the Democrats.

Holt was joined in the exit line by Negrete McLeod, who has been in office for just more than a year (after defeating Democratic Rep. Joe Baca in a redrawn district in 2012). She announced that she will run for San Bernardino County supervisor instead of re-election.

Obama carried her 35th District with 67 percent and 65 percent in the past two presidential elections. Even with California’s new top-two primary, there really isn’t a viable scenario where Republicans challenge for the seat. State Sen. Norma Torres, the Democrat who followed McLeod into the legislature, is likely to run and be the top contender for the seat. Rothenberg Political Report/Roll Call rates California’s 35th District as Safe for Democrats.