Congress Braces for Big Brain Drain as Old Hands Depart
Policy + Politics

Congress Braces for Big Brain Drain as Old Hands Depart

Flickr/C.M. Keiner

He first arrived in Congress 40 years ago as one of the “Watergate babies” after the fall of President Richard Nixon – and over time Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) emerged as one of the most thoughtful and productive legislators of his time.

The son of Russian immigrants, Waxman grew up in Los Angeles, where he launched a political career that catapulted him to Washington and decades of drafting and debating historic legislation and overseeing important hearings and investigations.

Related: Henry Waxman, 20-Term Democrat, to Retire

Short, bald and sporting his signature mustache, Waxman, 74, has been a shrewd strategist and is disarmingly even-tempered and even-handed. Among his biggest achievements were measures to make infant formula safer and more nutritious in 1980; allowing inexpensive generic drugs on the market in 1994; pushing major clean air regulations in 1990; improving medical care for people with AIDS in 1996; and reforming the U.S. Postal Service in 1996, as a Washington Post analysis noted.


Congress once again is losing vast experience and institutional knowledge through retirement or defeat. The outgoing 113th Congress had the least experienced House since 1995, with nearly two in five lawmakers having served for less than three years.

Waxman also was a major player in drafting and passing the Affordable Care Act in 2010. He was present at the creation of most of the important social, health care and economic legislation of the past four decades and with his departure takes a vast amount of institutional memory.

“My greatest achievement is to recognize that government has to be involved to help people, to be there to represent the public interest, and that government really makes a difference in people’s lives,” Waxman said Tuesday. “That’s whether it’s giving young people a chance to succeed to the fullest extent possible or to provide a safety net for people who need it or to do just do things that make sense for everybody, such as protecting the environment and the public health.”

Waxman is among 24 House members who retired this year on their own hook, while scores of other House members either ran for other offices or were defeated in reelection bids.

Related: How a GOP Senate Would Challenge Obama on Foreign Policy 

Among some of the other notable lawmakers who are leaving Congress at the end of the year are these:  

Senate Armed Services Committee Chair Carl Levin (D-MI)
The highly regarded Levin, 80, has steered defense policy on Capitol Hill with aplomb and academic rigor for 36 years in Congress. Long opposed to the ban on openly gay people serving in the military, Levin in 2010 helped set in motion the decision to rescind the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

Related: Coburn’s Last Act Was Blocking a VA Suicide Prevention Bill   

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK)
A family doctor, Coburn, 66, rose to prominence in the House as part of Newt Gingrich’s Republican Revolution in 1994-1995. He then arrived in the Senate in 2005 as a shrewd critic of government spending and something of a political bomb thrower. Over time, Coburn won the admiration of many colleagues despite his idiosyncratic conservative ways. He even managed to maintain a friendship with President Obama.

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA)
One of the most liberal Democrats in Congress, Harkin, 75, took pugnacious stands in favor of farm subsidies for his rural state, protecting Medicare and Medicaid from assaults on the right, championing education spending and reforms, and promoting economic revival through his 2012 “Rebuilding America Act.” He has served in Congress for 30 years.

Rep. John Dingell (D-MI)
Dingell, 88, is the longest serving member of the House – who followed his father into Congress in 1955. He proudly supported the major civil rights laws but opposed expanding school desegregation to the Detroit suburbs through forced busing. His base of power was as chair of the Energy and Commerce Committee and later the Oversight and Investigation subcommittee. He’s taken a relatively balanced approach to clean air legislation while staying mindful of Detroit’s auto industry. 

Related: Dingell, Longest Serving Member of Congress, to Retire   

House Armed Services Committee Chair Howard “Buck” McKeon (R-CA)
McKeon, 78, divided his 22-year career in Congress between education and labor issues. He had a reliably conservative voting record and later led Republicans on crucial defense issues. After the GOP regained control of the House in 2011, McKeon became Armed Services Committee chair and led the opposition to cut the defense budget. That was a tough assignment during the rise of the Tea Party and the advent of automatic spending cuts or sequestration, but McKeon declared at one point, “I will not be the Armed Services chairman who presided over crippling our military.”

Other prominent retiring members include Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WVA), Rep. George Miller (D-CA), and Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA).

Top Reads from The Fiscal Times: