Let’s note the contrast between powerful congressional leaders leaving office and Arkansas’ congressmen – who haven’t started being in leadership until now – who seek to stay.
Speaker Paul Ryan’s announced retirement Wednesday was the blockbuster, but he’s not the only leader going home. Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Penn., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, is retiring. So is Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-South Carolina, a partisan Republican who told VICE News he’s leaving Congress partly because it’s so partisan. Gowdy said he knows exactly how many flights to Washington he has left – 19 as of the interview.
Ryan is the big news. He’s third in line to be president and is one of Congress’ two most powerful officials. But he had to be talked into taking the speakership, and now he’s walking away from it. His stated desire to spend more time with his family is believable given his history, but the job also has worn him down. Plus, he knows there’s a good chance he’d be handing the gavel next January to Nancy Pelosi. Few jobs are more frustrating than being in the minority party in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Ryan, Schuster and Gowdy are part of a growing list of House members leaving office. According to Ballotpedia, 54 representatives have announced they are giving up their seats. (That’s not including the seven who have already left due to scandal or to take another job.) Ten are seeking U.S. Senate seats, but the other 44 won’t be returning to Congress. Of the 54, 37 are Republicans. And that list will grow because the filing period hasn’t ended in 19 states.
Ryan’s departure could inspire others to follow. Being in the House means spending many hours fundraising on the phone, just so you can stay in office and vote along party lines for huge spending packages you can barely support. Congress doesn’t really function any more. It just lurches from crisis to crisis. Individual members, unless they are in the highest levels of leadership, don’t have much say-so anymore over legislation. They can’t even direct a few million dollars to projects in their districts. Republicans know they are tied to President Trump’s latest tweets, whether they agree with them or not.
Arkansas’ House members, all elected in 2010 or 2014, have not been in leadership positions – until now. Rep. Steve Womack, who represents Northwest Arkansas’ 3rd District, in January was elected chairman of the House Budget Committee.
The congressional budgeting process has completely collapsed, so Womack inherits a very difficult position. The upside is it has nowhere to go but up. Moreover, he’s been appointed (by Ryan) to a 16-member bipartisan committee seeking reforms to the budgeting process.
So Womack might be able to do meaningful work these next two years, or he might start tearing his hair out.
The state’s other House members haven’t yet reached that level of leadership, and while they have passion and/or expertise in certain areas, it’s hard for them to get anything done. Rep. Rick Crawford in eastern Arkansas’ 1st District has tried for years to open up trade to Cuba, which would benefit his district’s farmers. On that issue, the news was better under President Obama than President Trump. He’s also a big supporter of Trump’s steel tariffs, which will benefit manufacturers in his district but could hurt farmers. Rep. Bruce Westerman in the timber-heavy 4th District, who is Congress’ only forester, twice has passed House legislation that would reform forest management policies, but it keeps getting stuck in the Senate. Rep. French Hill, a banker who represents Arkansas’ 2nd District, passed a House bill changing how mortgage costs are disclosed to borrowers. Finance bills certainly could be his thing. But like Westerman’s, his bill is sitting in the Senate.
All four filed for re-election, so they obviously want to stay up there. But historically, the president’s party usually loses seats in the midterm election, particularly when a president has low approval ratings. They’re likely to be re-elected, though some think Hill could be somewhat vulnerable because of the nature of his district. But if they’re in the minority next year, they’ll have even less ability to pass anything, and Womack will lose his chairmanship.
At that point, some of them may start counting the number of flights to Washington they have left.
Steve Brawner is a syndicated columnist in Arkansas. Email him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.