Capitol Hill: What's Behind The Gop Exodus

Representative John Edward Porter (R-Ill.) is in a spot that lots of lawmakers on Capitol Hill would covet. For five years, he has been chairman of the influential House subcommittee on appropriations that doles out money to everyone from the Education Dept. to the National Institutes of Health. But instead of reveling in his power and perks, Porter is heading for the exit. What's more, he has lots of company. Already, 19 House Republicans are planning to retire, vs. just five Democrats. And GOP leaders are bracing for more. Among those rumored to be coming down from the Hill: Representatives Amo Houghton (R-N.Y.), James A. Leach (R-Iowa), and Herbert H. Bateman (R-Va.).

The departures are a huge millstone for Republican leaders desperate to hang on to a five-seat margin in the House. "It's a tremendous challenge," says GOP strategist Frank Luntz, "because it's so hard to unseat an incumbent. If the party fails to communicate a strong message, some open seats may well go Democratic." To be sure, many of the retiring Republicans are in solidly GOP seats. But the others are in marginal districts or ones that have drawn robust Democratic contenders. "We have seven that will be tough to hold," concedes Representative Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee.

GAVELS DOWN. Ironically, much of the blame for a GOP exodus can be laid at the feet of Newt Gingrich. The former Speaker and architect of the Republican Revolution believes that Congress should be a forum of citizen-lawmakers, not professional politicians. So he made term limits a key plank in the 1994 Contract With America, and dozens of Republicans devoutly pledged to make their move to Washington temporary. Gingrich also pushed through reforms that limit House GOP lawmakers to serving no more than six years as committee or subcommittee chairs.

Now, pols such as Porter, who is losing chairmanship of the subcommittee on labor, health & human services, and education, are opting to step down rather than switch to other panels. Ways & Means Committee Chairman Bill Archer (R-Tex.) and Education Committee Chairman William F. Goodling (R-Pa.) are also leaving because they must relinquish their gavels. And five GOP lawmakers, including Representatives Tom A. Coburn of Oklahoma and Matt Salmon of Arizona, are abiding by their pledges to retire after 2000. "The bill is coming due for commitments from the '94 revolution," says Marshall Wittmann, director of congressional relations at the conservative Heritage Foundation.

Not all the retirements are tied to term limits, of course. Representatives Bill McCollum (R-Fla.) and Tom Campbell (R-Calif.) are running for the Senate, while Representative James M. Talent (R-Mo.) has his eye on the governor's mansion.

In contrast, Democrats are keeping retirements to a minimum. House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri is dangling coveted committee assignments--should the Dems retake control--as inducements to stay in the House. "They'll have to double the size of the Appropriations Committee to accommodate all the people Gephardt has made pledges to," jokes Stuart Rothenberg, editor of The Rothenberg Political Report, a nonpartisan newsletter.

With the retirement gap widening, Corporate America is hedging its bets. Of the $19.9 million that business gave to House campaign committees in the first six months of 1999, half went to Democrats, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. In the same period prior to the last election, Republicans snagged 61% of business donations. That will only make it tougher for the GOP to hang on to the House.

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