Kevin McCarthy isn’t the only Californian miserable in Congress

Kevin McCarthy has some company as he heads for the House exits.

Although they don’t agree on much these days, members of Congress are on the same page about one thing: It’s an especially miserable time to have their job, especially if you represent California.

With California’s Dec. 8 filing deadline to decide on running for reelection just days away, seven Golden State members of Congress have opted to leave — with four retiring outright rather than run for another office.

That list grew on Wednesday with the former speaker’s announcement that he would quit the House by the end of December.

The past year has been marked by an almost unprecedented level of chaos, dysfunction, and near misses on self-inflicted national economic catastrophes in the GOP-controlled House, all bookended by two separate speakership crises. McCarthy, who has been at the center of the House’s 2023 maelstrom, lost his grip on the gavel in October.

The disarray has led to a surge in retirements from both parties. Thirty-one House members are leaving, including 16 who aren’t running for other office. In November alone, 12 members announced their retirements — the most in any month for more than a decade, according to Ballotpedia.

For Californians, the day-to-day burdens of the job are heavier than they are for many of their colleagues. Californians always face some of the longest commutes of any member of Congress. Forty of the state’s 52 House members are Democrats, and being in the minority is a drag — especially during the current era of hyperpartisanship. On top of that, in the span of two years California’s delegation has gone from having two of its own at the helm of both parties in the House to having none, with former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-San Francisco) exit from leadership followed quickly by McCarthy’s ignominious demotion and decision to quit.

The real surprise isn’t how many California members are retiring — it’s how many are willing to stay after the past year of chaos.

“The travel sucks. It’s a long flight both ways. I get tired at random times of the day because of the time change,” Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Torrance) told The Times. On one recent flight, he was delayed six hours because the plane’s toilet wasn’t working — but he flies so much, he couldn’t remember when and where it happened.

Add to that a “Republican majority that’s doing a bunch of stupid stuff,” and the day-to-day in Congress “honestly feels more stupid” now than at any other point in Lieu’s decade in the House, he said.

And he’s a member of House Democratic leadership, serving as vice chairman.

It’s hard to overstate how maddening and demoralizing the last year in Congress has been for members of both parties.

McCarthy needed four days and 15 ballots to win the speakership in January. After months of struggling to get his conference to pass just about anything, he enraged his right-wing critics with a deal to temporarily avoid a government shutdown; they booted him weeks later. Since then, he has publicly lambasted the eight Republicans who voted to remove him; one of them accused him of elbowing him in the kidney, a claim McCarthy denied.

McCarthy announced his retirement in a Wall Street Journal op-ed in which he defended his decision to cross his right-wing critics on government funding deals — while hinting at Congress’ current dysfunction.

“We kept our government operating and our troops paid while wars broke out around the world,” he wrote. “No matter the odds, or personal cost, we did the right thing. That may seem out of fashion in Washington these days, but delivering results for the American people is still celebrated across the country.”

McCarthy’s allies are furious about how he was treated.

“Kevin did nothing wrong. He led us to victory. He led us to the majority. He led us well in the majority as our speaker. He’s done really great work. And he deserved to be our speaker,” Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Bonsall) told The Times last week, after indicating he expected McCarthy would retire. “A small gang, a gang of eight, took him out. And I hope that all eight of them recognize they made a mistake.”

Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.), one of McCarthy’s closest confidants and the man McCarthy made acting speaker when he was ousted from office, announced he would retire on Tuesday.

Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), another close ally, said he could “certainly understand why” McCarthy wouldn’t want to stick around.

“He was shamefully mistreated. His removal was ridiculous,” he told The Times last week. “And I think those that voted that way and were responsible for it, particularly on our side, ought to think long and hard of the damage they inflicted to the institution and to our conference.”

Cole said he plans to run again himself. But when asked if he could think of another time in his two decades in Congress that has been less fun to serve, he didn’t pause.

“No!” he exclaimed with a wry laugh.

Three other House Republicans tried and failed to win the speakership after McCarthy’s ouster before an exhausted GOP conference was able to compromise on making little-known Rep. Mike Johnson (R-La.) speaker. He then cut a deal to punt a decision on a government shutdown past the new year — the exact same move that had sealed McCarthy’s fate.

But Johnson’s deal only runs through late January, when Congress will once again grapple with what was once an easy vote to keep the lights on and avoid a government shutdown. The past week, the House wasn’t voting on that issue — or high-stakes funding to help Ukraine ward off Russia’s invasion or supply more military aid to Israel. House Republicans instead moved toward an official impeachment vote of President Biden, before finally voting to kick out Rep. George Santos (R-N.Y.) from the House after keeping him for the past year in spite of his many alleged felonies because they needed his vote in a closely divided chamber.

Rep. Julia Brownley (D-Westlake Village) said her belief that the U.S. is at “a critical point in the history of our country in terms of fighting for our democracy” motivates her to stay in Congress. But her train of thought was interrupted as Santos stormed off the House floor during his expulsion vote, followed by a pack of reporters who nearly trampled us in the narrow hallway—just the latest moment of dysfunctional chaos.

Once they cleared out, Brownley conceded that “it’s not a pleasant experience” to be a member of Congress right now.

“The last three months clearly weren’t a lot of fun here, with the chaos that we saw. And that might not change in the immediate future,” Rep. Ami Bera (D-Elk Grove) told The Times.

Later, as The Times interviewed Rep. Scott Peters (D-San Diego) on the topic, Bera interjected.

“I think you should do the story about why are members staying in Congress, as opposed to the opposite,” he said.

“I can’t walk away from the big money and the constant praise,” Peters, one of Congress’ wealthier members, remarked sardonically. He, like many members, went on to say he was sticking around not because the job was pleasant but because it was important. “People have died for democracy. I can put up with some long plane rides and average parties to try to help the country,” he said.

Rep. Grace F. Napolitano (D-Norwalk), who is retiring at age 84 after serving in the House for a quarter-century, told The Times that the current period was the least pleasant she’d experienced in Congress. She said when she first arrived she was able to work across the aisle on issues important for California with members like former Rep. David Dreier (R-Claremont) — but that has disappeared over the years.

“This trouble between both parties has got to stop. It’s not good for our country,” she said. She’ll miss “the infighting, the inability to work with people on issues that are really critical” the least.

Three of the seven Californians leaving the House are gunning for promotions rather than escape from Congress: Reps. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), Katie Porter (D-Irvine) and Barbara Lee (D-Oakland) are all running for the Senate. But that doesn’t mean they’re loving their daily work right now.

“Things have become so much more personal and bitter, and we’ve seen the elevation of these kind of vile performance artists,” Schiff, whom Republicans removed from his committees in a retaliatory vote earlier this year, told The Times. “I think it contributes to some of the departures. One thing that attracts me about the Senate is the opportunity to get more things done.”

Add two transcontinental flights a week to a job where it’s tough to get much done, and you have a recipe for unhappiness.

“I don’t think I’ll miss the weekly commute. I won’t miss sitting in the middle seat economy in the back of the plane, and all the have-dos that come with this job,” said Rep. Anna G. Eshoo (D-Menlo Park), who is retiring at age 80.

Rep. Tony Cárdenas is also retiring. His decision was the only one that surprised his colleagues — he’s only 60.

He’s burnt out on the lifestyle. Cárdenas’ normal week begins with a 5 a.m Monday wakeup so he can say goodbye to his wife and make it to LAX by 6 a.m. — the commute is 35 minutes before 6, and close to an hour after. He arrives in D.C. late Monday afternoon, works all day for four days, then tries to get home for a bit of the weekend. “Going back and forth puts a strain on relationships with our loved ones,” he said.

The travel takes a physical toll too. Cárdenas told The Times that he’d never had any back problems in his life. But after a few years in Congress and more than 30 transcontinental flights a year, he developed severe pain. When his wife touched his back to check, it made him scream. He’d developed sciatica from all the time crammed into airplane seats (acupuncture and working on his posture have helped).

Eshoo told The Times that she hadn’t decided to leave Congress because of how miserable it’s become — ”I don’t run away from anything” — but that she felt it was time to go.

Eshoo has been friends with Pelosi, the former speaker, for a half-century, dating back to the 1970s, and said it was a “tough conversation” to tell her she was retiring, especially since Pelosi lobbied her to stay for another term.

Multiple members said they were surprised that the 83-year-old Pelosi would outlast McCarthy, 58, in Congress. With Pelosi and McCarthy both out of leadership, Rep. Pete Aguilar (D-Redlands), the third-ranking House Democrat, is now the most senior Californian in House leadership of either party.

Californians who’ve left Congress say they don’t miss it at all.

Multiple former members have opted to return home and run for local office. Former Democratic Reps. Janice Hahn and Hilda Solis are serving on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.

“I am 100% happy that I came home,” Hahn told The Times. “What has transpired in Congress recently only reaffirms that decision. It seems chaotic. It seems ineffective. And I think it causes the American public to be very disappointed in their policymakers in Congress.”

Los Angeles County is the most populous in the U.S. It has more than 10 million people — a population that’s larger than those of 40 U.S. states — and serving as one of the five supervisors is in many ways a more powerful position than being one of 435 members in an ineffective House.

Hahn spent three terms in the minority before retiring in 2016, having found “the partisan, polarizing atmosphere of Congress to be really almost debilitating at some times.” She said she was proud of creating a bipartisan caucus to support port cities. But her legislative achievements — like most minority members’ — were scant. “I mean, I named a post office,” she said.

Former Rep. Paul Cook, a Republican, is now a San Bernardino County supervisor. Democratic Rep. Gloria Negrete McLeod left Congress to run unsuccessfully for the same role. Democrat Jackie Speier, who retired from Congress after the last term, is now running for the San Mateo board of supervisors — a job she held early in her career.

Speier said she retired because she’d promised her husband she’d come home, and initially “almost resented” the decision. But now?

“As time wore on, I realized, oh my gosh, we live and work in this bubble, and don’t realize how insane it is. When you’re when you step back from it, you know, it’s like you’re a hamster on a treadmill. And you just keep doing it with no real positive results,” she said. “The institution is so dysfunctional now that it really frightens me.”

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