Mr. Smith decides to go home

To put it bluntly, being a member of Congress sucks — and the 16 members in the growing caucus of legislators heading for the exits seem to agree.

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Someone has announced his retirement every day this week — on Wednesday it was Northern Virginia Rep. Jim Moran (D), with Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) set to go on Thursday — and the numbers have added up over the past month. 

Now, the daily question in D.C. has become who will go next.

The result has shaken up the political math for both parties heading into 2014, but more than anything it underscores just what a terrible, thankless and expensive job being a member of Congress is.

Sacrificing time away from often young families, all to get little — if anything — done and to rank among the least liked groups in the country, no longer seems worth the prestige and $174,000 annual paycheck.

“I’d be hard pressed to find one person who likes their job as a member of Congress,” laughed one GOP campaign official.

While many once reveled in a long and industrious political career, the job has lost its luster as partisanship and gridlock in Washington have grown. Some of those departing are senior lawmakers, but at least three have been sophomore members — Reps. Tim Griffin (R-Ark.), Bill Owens (D-N.Y.), and Jon Runyan (R-N.J.) — who won hard-fought races and are stepping down after just two terms. Several strategists say they wouldn’t be shocked if other short-timers leave, too. 

While Owens was anticipating a competitive race, Griffin and Runyan weren’t expected to have tough reelections. Now Democrats hope to put both in play.

Griffin, a longtime GOP operative who worked in the George W. Bush administration as a top aide to Karl Rove, was one of the earliest head-scratchers. In his statement, he said his young family was his top priority, but it raised an immediate red flag among observers that such a political animal was leaving.

After Runyan’s retirement, New Jersey sources said the former Philadelphia Eagles lineman found the job simply wasn’t what he expected it to be with all the infighting and feuding, and that he, too, would rather be able to see his children more.

“I hear it from sophomores more and more who are just sort of figuring out that the job, while pretty cool, requires a lot of sacrifice. It’s got to be enjoyable to sacrifice that kind of time from your family,” said GOP pollster Brock McCleary, a former deputy political director at the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Frustration isn’t confined to one party. Including McKeon’s expected announcement on Thursday, six Democrats and 10 Republicans have announced they won’t run again. That’s not including the three Republicans and one Democrat who have already stepped down prematurely.

Former Rep. Rodney Alexander (R-La.) resigned earlier this year to take a job in Gov. Bobby Jindal’s (R-La.) administration. His statement declaring his decision may have been the most blunt and pessimistic so far: “Rather than producing tangible solutions to better this nation, partisan posturing has created a legislative standstill. Unfortunately, I do not foresee this environment to change anytime soon.”

Numerous strategists admit that a deep discontent with their draining jobs has affected many members.

“It’s sad, because a lot of these folks are good members and good people,” said one Democratic consultant who focuses on House races.

Owens won a tough 2009 special election and two subsequent close contests, but many Democrats weren’t surprised by his decision to retire, saying he had been disillusioned for some time.

For Democrats, the departures of conservative Reps. Jim Matheson (D-Utah) and Mike McIntyre (D-N.C.) are nearly certain to cost them two seats. Some in the party are worried other Democrats in red districts, such as Rep. Collin Peterson (Minn.) and Nick Rahall (W.Va.), could be next.

Democratic pollster John Anzalone, who polled for Matheson, said the Utah Democrat was simply ready to move on and that he still thought he could win his rematch with Republican Mia Love. But Anzalone admitted that some other members were likely leaving because of the frustration they felt.

“For someone like Jim, it was really more about the fact that he has one more stage in his life — he’s in his mid-50s, and it’s time to have one more good chapter,” said Anzalone. “There’s a whole other group who says it’s a tough lifestyle, it’s not a good place to be, it’s not a good quality of life.”

For Republicans, the increased Tea Party control within the caucus coupled with threats of primary challengers has raised tensions. Democrats argue it must have contributed to the unexpected exits of Runyan and Reps. Tom Latham (Iowa), Jim Gerlach (Pa.) and Frank Wolf (Va.).

“You don’t expect to get up there and then not be able to get anything done because there’s so much fracturing in your caucus,” Anzalone argued. “Some Republicans are basically just throwing in the towel because they’re not getting anything done ... it’s the purity test that’s killing them.”

Seven Senators are also retiring: five Democrats and two Republicans. Among those are one-term Sen. Mike Johanns (R-Neb.), a former governor and U.S. Agriculture secretary.

It’s a poorly kept secret in Washington that many former state officials, particularly governors, find themselves especially aghast at the lack of action when they get to Washington.

“Can you imagine feeling like you’re just bickering and spinning your wheels?” said one Democratic aide. “That’s why so many state lawmakers who come to D.C. are banging their heads against the wall.”