Dynamics of Senate Retirements

Published date01 March 2017
Date01 March 2017
Subject MatterArticles
/tmp/tmp-18Egn7jj3kKJDh/input 684033PRQXXX10.1177/1065912916684033Political Research QuarterlyMasthay and Overby
Political Research Quarterly
2017, Vol. 70(1) 184 –193
Dynamics of Senate Retirements
© 2017 University of Utah
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DOI: 10.1177/1065912916684033
Theodore J. Masthay1 and L. Marvin Overby1
Although there is a large literature on the career decisions of House members, there is a dearth of critical scholarship
examining retirement decisions in the Senate. This study aims to address this under-explored topic and identify the key
factors in Senate retirement decisions. With a less demanding election schedule, greater power afforded to individual
senators, more prestige attached to the office, and fewer attractive options for progressive ambition, we find that
Senate retirement decisions differ substantially from patterns observed in the House. Among other things, the partisan
retirement differential that is so obvious and persistent in the House (with Republican MCs retiring at higher rates
than Democrats) is markedly absent in the Senate. We explore this and other inter-chamber differences, discussing
both their empirical and normative ramifications, and noting their importance for our understanding not only of the
two chambers but also of the two parties.
Congress, Senate, legislative careers, retirements
For several generations, students of the U.S. Congress
discrepancies so obvious in the House might not be pres-
have been interested in the career patterns of incumbent
ent (or at least as marked) in the Senate. Comparisons of
representatives, especially their retirement decisions. In
the two chambers might provide added insights into these
an era that has been characterized by what some have
partisan dynamics, permitting us a better appreciation of
called “super incumbency advantages,” this interest has
the factors that make government service attractive to
been driven in large measure by the fact that voluntary
legislators in different parties.
departures have far outstripped electoral defeats as a
The paper unfolds as follows. First, we review the
source of congressional turnover. For those interested in
relatively copious literature on House retirement patterns,
legislative turnover and political renewal, retirements are
focusing where appropriate on the important partisan
a significantly larger source of congressional replacement
dimension, followed by a review of the very limited work
than are electoral defeats. Ornstein et al. (2013) report
that has been done on Senate retirements. Second, we
that in the almost four-decade period between the federal
overview the differences between the two chambers,
election campaign reforms of the early 1970s and 2012,
focusing on those that might reasonably be expected to
retirements from the House of Representatives surpassed
affect legislators’ career decisions. Third, we describe
electoral defeats 726 to 501 (1.4 to 1). The Senate ratio of
and analyze data on departures from the Senate from the
1.58 to 1 (141 to 89) is even starker.
93rd through the 113th Congress (1973–2014), consider-
One consistent finding in this literature has been that
ing both retirements from elective life and progressive
Republican legislators tend to retire—either from public
ambition to run for other offices, comparing these volun-
life altogether or to seek other offices—at higher rates
tary departures with rates of electoral defeat and with
than do Democrats, a situation that has significant impli-
similar departure rates in the House. We also consider the
cations for the partisan balance of power in the Congress.
effect of party on retirement decisions, both descriptively
However, as with many areas of congressional studies,
and in multivariate models that control for other relevant
virtually all of the attention to retirement patterns has
factors. Finally, we conclude by discussing the implica-
been devoted to the House of Representatives. This is
tions our findings hold for our understanding of the
unfortunate for several reasons. First, it leaves our under-
standing of congressional career dynamics incomplete.
1University of Missouri, Columbia, USA
The numerous institutional disparities between the House
Corresponding Author:
and the Senate might contribute to very different factors
Theodore J. Masthay, Department of Political Science, University of
influencing career choices in the two chambers. Second,
Missouri, 113 Professional Building, Columbia, MO 65211, USA.
and relatedly, there are reasons to suspect that the partisan
Email: tmy58@mail.missouri.edu

Masthay and Overby
chambers of Congress and for the desire of members of
retirement decisions have substantial implications for
the two parties to serve in them, as well as outlining some
partisan control of the House of Representatives.
avenues for future research.
Analyzing data from the period 1954 to 1990 and concen-
trating on the unpleasantness of long-term minority status
Previous Research
in a majoritarian institution, they concluded that volun-
tary departures “cost the Republicans anywhere from 5 to
At least since Mayhew’s (1974, 5) famous dictum that
15 seats in the House,” accounting for “about 20% of the
members of Congress (MCs) may be considered “single-
number [of seats] needed to win a majority” (Gilmour
minded seekers of reelection,” students of the Congress
and Rothstein 1993, 358).
have been fascinated by the unusual cases of those incum-
Ang and Overby (2008) extended this time series for-
bents who opt not to run again. In part, this enquiry was
ward, capitalizing on the natural experiment afforded by
driven by the fact that Mayhew’s treatise on the “electoral
the Republican takeover of the House following the 1994
connection” coincided with an unanticipated surge in vol-
elections to interrogate Gilmour and Rothstein’s conclu-
untary House retirements during the 1970s, even as incum-
sion that higher retirement rates among GOP MCs were
bents’ rates of re-election remained high. Initial studies of
driven by their experiences as members of the seemingly
this upsurge focused on the causes of retirements. Stressing
“permanent minority.” Ang and Overby’s finding that
the unintentional consequences of institutionalization,
Republicans continued to retire at higher rates even when
Cooper and West (1981) noted that increasingly lengthy
in the majority convinced them that fundamental partisan
sessions, increasingly complex policy debates, increas-
differences rather than minority/majority status account
ingly demanding constituents, and increasingly odious
for differential retirement rates.1 Although they also
fund-raising responsibilities led some members to the con-
argued that improvements in Republicans’ ability to win
clusion that “the job [was] . . . not fun anymore.” In the
and hold open seat races partially compensated for retire-
same vein, Hibbing (1982) indicted institutional and parti-
ment losses, Ang and Overby (339) concluded that GOP
san changes, particularly the decline in the seniority norm,
career choices “significantly attenuated the size of their
which had guaranteed committee leadership roles to long-
legislative majority and contributed to their ouster as the
serving members of the majority party.
majority party in the elections of 2006.”
Focusing on micro rather than macro factors, other
Murakami (2009) used data on House career decisions
researchers looked to the individual circumstances—some
from the 97th through the 108th Congresses (1997–2004)
political, some economic—of individual MCs. Jacobson
to assess four hypotheses related to differences in partisan
and Kernell (1983), for instance, concluded that retirement
retirement rates: that those in the minority party, conser-
choices were based on personal calculations of the esti-
vatives, those with better political opportunities outside
mated costs and benefits of seeking re-election, especially
of the chamber, and those with more lucrative private sec-
in terms of the national political forces at play in particular
tor opportunities are more likely to retire. Distinguishing
election cycles. Similarly, Moore and Hibbing (1998)
between those opting to leave the public arena entirely
found retirements over the 1960 to 1996 period to be more
and those reaching for higher office, he found that little
common among older members, those less electorally
other than ideology mattered for the first category and
secure, those (relative to their ages) less senior, and those at
little save ideology and political opportunities (i.e.,
greater distance ideologically from their party median.
gubernatorial and Senate seats that were either open or
Drawing on labor economics, Kiewiet and Zeng (1993)
occupied by the other party) for the latter; notably, he
developed an expected utility model, concluding—unex-
concluded that after taking proper account of other fac-
pectedly—that though age and partisanship did not sizably
tors, partisanship itself is insignificant to retirement deci-
affect members’ retirement decisions, institutional reforms
sions. Murakami’s analysis not only made a coherent case
such as those discussed by Hibbing did have significant
for why conservative politicians might prefer governor-
effects. Using a similar...

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