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Ken Buck's retirement and the war of attrition for the House

The direction Congress takes next year won't just be about which party holds the most seats. It's about who can hold out against the chaos the longest.

Tuesday’s surprise announcement from Rep. Ken Buck, R-Colo., that he’s leaving Congress next week adds to the rush of House members fleeing even before their terms have ended. Buck’s announcement, which even shocked his colleagues, highlights how the war to control the House is about more than which party holds the most seats. It is a war of attrition, where the country’s path will be determined by those most willing to withstand the chaos that has become a mainstay on Capitol Hill.

Buck had already announced that he was going to be one of the 21 House Republicans who wouldn’t be seeking to retain their seat after this term. But his early exit triggers a special election in Colorado, one that will give whoever wins it a likely advantage to help hold the conservative district seat in November.

With 24 Democrats expected to leave their seats in January, it’d be easy to think that the urge to ditch Congress cuts almost evenly across the aisle. But half of those Democrats are stepping down to run for another office. In comparison, Buck is one of 15 Republicans who are simply calling it quits. (There’s also one GOP incumbent so far, Rep. Jerry Carl of Alabama, who won’t return because he lost his primary race after redistricting.)

As baffling as it may be to say, Buck, a longtime member of the Freedom Caucus, is leaving Congress as one of the more reasonable members of his party. His stepping down narrows the already minuscule majority that Republicans have. Until his seat is filled, the GOP will only be able to withstand two defections before an initiative falls in the face of a united Democratic caucus. As we’ve repeatedly seen in numerous failed votes, there are far more than two Republicans who are happy to procedurally flip off leadership for not being conservative enough. Illnesses and absences will make that tenuous grasp on power even more apparent, forcing Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., to constantly check attendance before bringing partisan bills to the floor.

Buck’s early departure also highlights the frustration that many long-term GOP members feel about how deeply unproductive this Congress has been. Five of those stepping aside are powerful committee chairs, and only two of them face caucus-imposed term limits on their chairmanship. This has prompted the (entirely eye-roll-inducing) complaint that “Congress is broken” from the likes of departing House Homeland Security Chair Rep. Mark Green, R-N.C., despite decades of GOP disregard for legislating being a major cause of that brokenness.

The Cook Political Report characterizes 22 House races around the country as true toss-ups, 11 each for Republicans and Democrats. Only two seats (held by Michigan Democrats Dan Kilde and Elisa Slotkin) are occupied by members leaving at the end of this term. (Slotkin is running for Senate.) Cook also lists two Republican seats as at least leaning toward a Democrat winning, potentially negating the threat those retirements might pose. For those reasons, Buck’s announcement on its own doesn’t seem likely to shift control of the House after this fall’s elections.

It’s worth thinking, though, about how the factors named above operate in tandem. With so many of the newly open seats in deeply red-and-blue districts, there’s little drama about which party will win them. This raises the importance of swing districts in the fall. In recognition of the importance of those seats, House Democrats have often prioritized holding onto them to the detriment of progressive policies. House Republicans, meanwhile, have treated their moderate members in swing districts as afterthoughts, preferring instead to spend most of their time placating the MAGA wing of the party.

What this Congress has shown is that the existence of 218 members with an “R” next to their name is no longer enough to guarantee that Republican leaders have functional control over the House. It follows, then, that if the GOP does manage to retain the majority next year, most of the freshmen incumbents who fill those vacated seats will likely be uninterested in compromising with Democrats across the aisle. The internal GOP chaos that Buck and others are escaping may be reduced — but only because there are even more hard-liners willing to throw their weight around, bringing the rest of the caucus along with them.

It falls, then, on those members who remain, the task to hold the line against a potential increase in the ranks of newly sworn-in firebrands. It’s a fight that I don’t envy for the few institutionalists who still call the GOP home.