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To Departing House Members: Don’t be a Bunch of Turkeys

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To the able members of Congress considering the exits (and those who can still change their mind about leaving):

I get it. Most everyone reading this column does, too. The hassles are adding up: the travel, the looming primary and general election and, especially, the chaos and toxicity that has characterized life on the Hill since January 6, 2021.

You’re wondering if it’s worth another term.

It is.

After your turkey today, you may take in some football, relax on the couch and contemplate your future. As you discuss with your loved ones whether to run for office again — or just ponder it in your own mind as you drift off in a tryptophanian haze — here’s something to consider: guilt.

Your decision isn’t taking place in isolation. The collective exodus — November has brought the most congressional retirements in any single month for over a decade — poses a direct threat to the institution. The more capable people like you who leave, the more you’re consigning the fate of Congress to those who have no business being there at all. You will only exacerbate the contagion that is prompting you to consider leaving.

Before you fling a drumstick my way and bellow about not understanding just how frustrating it can be to serve as a member of Congress today, I say this: don’t take it from me.

Ahead of Thanksgiving, with the retirements piling up and rumors of more on the way, I reached out to a group of your colleagues in both parties to help present this plea. As you will see below, they appeal to most every political impulse — patriotism, ambition and, yes, shame.

First, a few caveats.

There’s no sin in considering quitting. None of your colleagues believe this is a high-water mark in representative democracy. Norma Desmond was right, actually: The pictures have gotten smaller.

There was always a rogue’s gallery to be found in Congress, and especially in the House, but they were usually eclipsed by bigger people in both parties. Now you’re starting to wonder (Same).

And it’s the anecdotes and the moments that stick with you.

A pair of House Republicans told me separately earlier this year about a remarkable scene from Kevin McCarthy’s first battle for the speakership in January. In one of the closed-door negotiations with the holdouts, Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) grew frustrated as the conversation turned to roles on “HASC.” We’re talking about “the Armed Services Committee,” Boebert exclaimed. Nobody in the room had the heart to tell her that “HASC” is an acronym for House Armed Services Committee.

Further, if you’ve had a productive run and you’re well into AARP eligibility this appeal is not for you. Enjoy those grandchildren. But before you go, please help groom and elect a capable successor, particularly if you’re in a seat where the primary is tantamount to victory.

Lastly, this does not apply to Mr. Santos of New York. You’re good to go.

For the rest of you, though, please listen. I know it’s still Thanksgiving, but consider a Christmas picture: must you be George Bailey and shown the Congress you’ll leave behind had you not been there?

The institutional memory of Congress is being hollowed out. As Paul Kane noted in The Washington Post last weekend, nearly 46 percent of House members had served less than five years as of 2021.

Consider who will take your seat if you don’t run again or if — looking at you House Class of 2018 members — you join the stampede to run for other offices.

Is that person going to be a serious-minded, dedicated legislator?

What really stung Rep. Brendan Boyle (D-Pa.) was when Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-Wash.) said earlier this month he would not run again, an announcement that has prompted a cascade of other retirements.

Only 49, Kilmer has a coveted slot on the House Appropriations Committee. Just as notable, he had also spent the last few years allied with a Kentucky Republican, Rep. Andy Barr, in a congressional working group to confront polarization and find ways to make Congress work better.

“It’s exactly the wrong people who are wanting to leave,” Boyle told me. “The performance artists love the circus, it’s what they crave.”

Boyle’s message to those considering the exits: “If you all leave now, you’ll only make it worse here.”

Representative Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.), who knows something about the value of institutional memory, was even more direct: “Don’t let the bad guys win.”

It’s not just Democrats who are angst-ridden about what more turnover could mean to Congress.

Representative Ann Wagner (R-Mo.) was impassioned, mixing patriotism with shame in her entreaty.

“It’s a function of duty — to our country, our democratic republic, our communities and our families,” Wagner, the mother of a West Point graduate, told me. “If rational, common sense, get-it-done, consensus-building conservatives give up, the do-nothing, click-bait, self-serving, chaos caucus wins. And America and the world loses.”

She wasn’t done.

“It can be rewarding, if you know you are making a difference in real people’s lives,” Wagner added. “We can’t let the noise distract us from our mission, serving a cause greater than oneself, standing up for the most vulnerable and being true selfless servants.”

Barr, the Kentuckian, pointed to the demands of this moment. “The challenges are enormous and we need the best, most experienced members who have the right temperament to come back.”

Barr’s GOP colleague from North Carolina, Patrick McHenry, offered this appeal, somewhat more to the vanity of the ambitious politician.

“The Congress is on the edge of the next great turn,” said McHenry. “And if you’re in a position to lead change for the long term, it’s desperately needed. That’s why you should stay. To lead that change. Make things better. Not because of how things are now, but because of how they can be.”

Hear that, the opportunity for greatness is there? (Students of the gentleman from North Carolina can debate whether he sees himself leading the House into this hopeful future, is genuinely torn or is merely hoping to coax his colleagues to stay while he plots private sector life after 2024.)

In all seriousness, though, this moment demands bigness. Former President Donald Trump’s refusal to concede defeat and the Capitol riot he incited are seared in the minds of lawmakers. Next year’s election and its aftermath could prove even more trying. We must, to borrow a phrase, send our best.

“Our democracy is more fragile than at any other time since the Civil War, and we need men and women dedicated to preserving our democracy in office who put the needs of the country and their constituents above their own self-interest,” said Rep. Jennifer McClellan (D-Va.), one of the newest members of Congress.

Rep. Scott Peters (D-Calif.) was just as direct.

“The country is in serious trouble and it needs serious people now,” Peters said. “People have literally died defending democracy; can’t you please put up with the shit schedule, meh compensation and terrible parties to help us get it right?”

He may have lost his gavel at the Rules Committee, but Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) — whose congressional service dates to his years as a top aide to his legendary Rules predecessor Joe Moakley — said he’s never “felt a greater sense of purpose than I do right now.”

This, McGovern said, “is the time for people who love this country to stick around and fight.”

Lawmakers, adds Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine), are in office to find solutions and solve problems — troubleshooting is essential to the job.

“If I was an oncologist, I wouldn’t say I only want to treat people with no disease,” Pingree said, a metaphor which itself says something about the health of our body politic. “We get hired to do our jobs in the majority or minority and they’re just as important when you’re fighting the bad guys as when you’re in charge.”

In closing, I will claim a moment of personal privilege.

As he concluded his farewell speech just over a year ago, Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), who served with distinction in both chambers of Congress, said something that has stayed with me. And I hope it will resonate with you.

“What we do here,” said Blunt, “is more important than who we are.”

Benjamin Johansen contributed to this report.