Retiring Congress Members See Rough Roads Ahead. They Won’t Miss the Gridlock.


In the House, the impact of the retiring lawmakers is already evident on the Republican side of the aisle: Representative Adam Kinzinger, who is stepping down from his Illinois seat, voted to raise the debt ceiling in 2021 and avoid a catastrophic default on the nation’s debt. Seven of the nine Republicans who voted last month to keep the government open are leaving Congress, either defeated by a primary opponent or getting out while the getting is good.

Despite their own burnished records of bipartisanship and constructive achievement, several lawmakers said they had grown dissatisfied with how legislating had largely been ceded to leadership. They were also concerned that fears about retribution from each party’s ideological base had derailed longstanding ambitions to change immigration laws or challenge the power of the nation’s tech companies.

This Congress also had razor-thin majorities in both chambers, which helped fuel the increasing gridlock as competing priorities clogged the legislative calendar.

Describing how she had pictured the workings of the capital before arriving a decade ago, Representative Cheri Bustos, Democrat of Illinois, said, “There would be this real give and take, a deep dive into what the nation’s priorities were.” Laughing, she added, “That is not what happens in Washington.”

After years spending weekends in her district, championing bipartisan legislation and directing millions of federal dollars home to organizations and constituents in a swing seat, Ms. Bustos cited the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol and the deep psychological wounds it had inflicted on lawmakers and her own family as significant factors in the decision not to seek another term. In the days after the attack, several Democrats refused to work with any Republican who had opposed certifying Mr. Biden’s victory, and relationships remain frayed.

“I still remember my husband saying, ‘Things are not going to get better out there,’” she said. “We govern to the extremes — the American public will continue with its disgust with how Congress conducts itself.”

In their final weeks, retiring lawmakers set about packing up their offices, attending farewell parties and laboring to send one last priority into law. (Mr. Burr, notorious for going sockless in the austere Capitol halls, was figuring out what to do with the socks people had given him over the years.) They were also reflecting on the accomplishments of their tenure and hopes that their legislation would last long after their departure, even in a fractious Congress.

“That, to me, is the loneliest position to be in,” Mr. Burr said. “If I didn’t have anything, and really wonder if I’d wasted 28 years of my life.”

Catie Edmondson and Carl Hulse contributed reporting.