House Republicans didn’t exactly have a banner year in 2023. They made history for all the wrong reasons. Last January, they presided over the most protracted election for speaker in a century, and nine months later, for good measure, lawmakers ejected their leader, Kevin McCarthy, for the first time ever. Last month, the House expelled one of its own, George Santos, for only the sixth time.
The rest of the year wasn’t any more productive. Thanks in part to Republican discord, the House passed fewer bills that became laws than any other year in decades. And for the few important measures that did pass, GOP leaders had to rely on Democrats to bail them out.
Republican lawmakers have responded by quitting in droves. After the House spent much of October fighting over whom to elect as speaker, November saw more retirement announcements than any single month in more than a decade. Some members aren’t even waiting for their term to end. McCarthy resigned last week, depriving the party that fired him of both his experience and, more crucially, his vote. Representative Bill Johnson of Ohio, a Republican, and Brian Higgins of New York, a Democrat, are each leaving for new jobs in the next several weeks. (Santos would have stuck around, but his colleagues had other ideas.)
A roughly equal number of members from each party plan to forgo reelection this year. But the most powerful departing lawmakers are Republicans: The chair of the House Appropriations Committee, Representative Kay Granger of Texas, is leaving after a quarter century in Congress, and the head of the Financial Services Committee, Representative Patrick McHenry of North Carolina, will end his 20-year House career next year.
Still, some Republicans are leaving after just a few years in Congress, including Representatives Victoria Spartz of Indiana and Debbie Lesko of Arizona, both former state legislators. For them, serving in Congress simply isn’t all it’s cracked up to be—not when your party can’t seem to figure out how to govern. “People don’t engage with each other,” Lesko told me. “They just make speeches.”
Here are the stories of four Republicans who are calling it quits at different stages of their career: McHenry, a onetime rabble-rouser who became a party insider; Brad Wenstrup, an Army podiatrist whose House tenure spanned from the Tea Party to Donald Trump; Spartz, a conservative with an impulsive streak; and Lesko, a Trump loyalist who never quite found her way in Washington. Taken together, their departures reflect the rising frustrations within a Republican Party that has floundered in the year since it assumed power in the House—a year in which it has spent more time fighting than governing.
On October 17, after House Republicans had just tanked their third choice for speaker, Representative Debbie Lesko finally decided she’d had enough: She wouldn’t be seeking reelection. The 65-year-old grandmother of five had been planning to stay for one more term, but the ouster of Kevin McCarthy and the weeks of chaos that followed changed her mind. “It kind of put me over the top,” Lesko told me.
Lesko had higher hopes for Congress back in 2018, when she won a special election to represent a safely Republican seat north of Phoenix. “Perhaps I was naive,” she conceded. Lesko prioritized border security during her first campaign and managed to get one border-related bill signed into law while Trump was president and Republicans controlled the House in 2018, but her legislative goals have fallen short since then. In the Arizona state legislature, she had served in the leadership and chaired two powerful committees. “I was used to getting things done in a bipartisan fashion,” Lesko said. The House proved to be far more difficult terrain. As a Trump ally, Lesko found few willing Democratic partners after the GOP lost control first of the House majority in 2018 and then of the presidency in 2020.
In Arizona, Lesko said, lawmakers actually debated bills and amendments on the floor of the House and Senate; in Washington, by contrast, members just deliver speeches written for them by their young staff. “We don’t listen to each other,” Lesko lamented. “We just go in and read a statement.” She bemoaned the “lack of civility” and the hurling of personal insults between members in both parties. (When I asked if Trump had contributed to the incivility, she said, “I would prefer he not attack people personally, but he does a great job.”)
Lesko told me she enjoyed most the days she spent interacting with constituents back home, but over six years, they could not make up for the family time she gave up on cross-country flights and on fundraising. “If I felt we were getting a whole lot accomplished, I would sacrifice it,” she said. Instead, Republicans spent a week in January 2023 fighting over their speaker and then did it all over again in October. “That certainly didn’t make me feel like I wanted to stay,” she told me.
Representative Patrick McHenry introduced himself to much of America last year as a very frustrated man. The North Carolina Republican opened his unlikely stint as House speaker pro tempore with a memorable slam of the gavel—a brief eruption of anger aimed at the rump group of Republicans who had dethroned his ally, Speaker Kevin McCarthy.
When McHenry arrived in Congress nearly two decades ago, he might have counted as one of the renegades. He was a brash 29-year-old who liked nothing more than to pick fights with Democrats on cable news. After his first term, however, McHenry began to shift his strategy and redraw his image. He wanted to become a serious legislator, capable of using influence in Congress to affect public policy. “I realized that my actions were not enabling my goal, so I changed how I operated,” he told me. He became less of a partisan brawler and more of an inside player, studying the institution and how leaders in both parties wielded power. “My early years in Congress were like graduate school,” McHenry said.
McHenry is leaving with a reputation as a widely respected if not-quite-elder statesman (he’s only 48). He serves as the chair of the Financial Services Committee and acted as one of the GOP’s top negotiators of perhaps the most significant bill to come out of Congress last year, the Fiscal Responsibility Act, which prevented a debt default and ordered modest budget cuts. McHenry is retiring in part because he has to give up the committee gavel he so enjoys; Republican term limits allow most members to hold top committee posts for up to six years.
He also passed up a bid for a more permanent promotion. At one point in October, some of the same Democrats who had chafed at McHenry’s bombast as a young lawmaker were open to the idea of him serving as speaker. McHenry told me he’d wanted to be speaker earlier in his career, but not anymore. He refused entreaties to seek election as speaker or even to use his temporary position to try to pass legislation. “It would have been to the institution’s detriment and, frankly, even to mine,” he told me. “So I decided the best course of action is to want for nothing during that time period, and that meant resisting the opportunity to use power.”
When McHenry announced his retirement from the House two months later, he insisted that he was departing with none of the bitterness people might assume he carried. “I truly feel this institution is on the verge of the next great turn,” he said in his statement. When I asked him what gave him hope, he tried to put a positive spin on the dysfunction and disenchantment that have plagued Congress for years. “The operations of the House have been under severe pressure for a while,” McHenry said. “We have an institution that is struggling to perform in the current political environment.” He then made a prediction: “There’ll be significant changes that will happen in the coming congresses to make the place work.”
He won’t be around to see them. The GOP’s term limits for committee leaders is an often-underappreciated reason for turnover in the party’s House ranks, but McHenry declined to seek a waiver so he could stay atop the Financial Services Committee. “I’m going to honor our rules,” he said. He hasn’t decided what comes next: “This chapter is closing, and I’ve got another chapter ahead of me.”
This much is clear: Representative Brad Wenstrup is not leaving the House out of frustration with Washington gridlock. “I reject the notion that this has been a do-nothing House of Representatives,” he told me. Wenstrup proceeded to read from a list that he said ran to 20 pages of bills that the narrow Republican majority had advanced through the lower chamber of Congress over the past year. Most of these measures are gathering dust in the Democratic-controlled Senate, but the fact that a onetime outsider like Wenstrup would be defending an embattled institution so fervently is itself something of a revelation.
Wenstrup won election to the House a decade ago as a Tea Party–backed insurgent, having defeated an incumbent Republican in a surprising 2012 primary challenge from the right. He’ll leave next year as a leadership loyalist, positioned in the ideological center of a GOP conference that has grown decidedly more conservative in the past decade. He voted for the debt-ceiling deal in June, despite having criticized his first Republican opponent during their campaign for backing a similar bipartisan agreement. “Am I a conservative? Yes,” he said. “Did I try to advance common sense? Yes. Did I try to establish myself as a statesman? Yes.”
Wenstrup has become an institutionalist in other ways too. His biggest complaint—a common one among small-government conservatives—is that federal agencies have taken too much power from Congress, evading proper oversight and interpreting laws beyond the intent of the legislators who wrote them. “We have to bring back Schoolhouse Rock,” Wenstrup said, recalling the cartoon that taught a generation of Americans a somewhat-idealized version of legislative sausage-making. “A bill on Capitol Hill gets signed by the president. That’s the law. Agencies don’t get to change it.”
An Iraq War veteran who served as a combat surgeon, Wenstrup, 65, started his family later than most and has two young children in Ohio. He told me he had decided that this term would be his last in the House before any of the speaker tumult of the past year: “I decided that I wanted to make sure that I raised my kids, not someone else.”
Good luck trying to predict Representative Victoria Spartz’s next move. The Indiana conservative is leaving Congress next year after just two terms—assuming she sticks with her plan.
That hasn’t always been the case during Spartz’s short tenure in the House. She is fiercely protective of her options, and she has made her name by going her own way. At one point this fall, she threatened to resign her seat if Congress did not create a commission to tackle the federal debt. “I cannot save this Republic alone,” she said at the time. (Congress has created no such commission, but Spartz isn’t leaving quite yet.)
Spartz, 45, is the only Ukrainian-born member of Congress, and she assumed a prominent role in the GOP after Russia’s invasion in 2022. Her nuanced position on the conflict has defied easy characterization. While cheering for Ukraine’s victory, she sharply criticized its prime minister, Volodymyr Zelensky, at a time when much of the West was rallying to his side. Spartz has accused Zelensky of “playing politics and theater” and demanded an investigation of one of his top aides. When members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee traveled to Ukraine on an official visit without her—she doesn’t serve on the panel—Spartz paid her own way and “crashed” the trip. She supports more U.S. aid to Ukraine, but not without conditions, and she believes that the funding must be more targeted toward heavy military equipment rather than humanitarian assistance. “Ukraine must win this war,” she told me, “but wars are won with weapons, and we need to be much faster, much tougher, and better.”
Spartz again proved to be a wild card during the House’s recurring struggles over picking a speaker. During the 15 rounds of balloting last January, she supported Kevin McCarthy on the first three turns, then voted “present” eight times before returning to McCarthy for the final four rounds. In October, she voted with McCarthy’s critics to bring up a resolution to oust him as speaker, but on the climactic vote, she stuck with McCarthy. “Kevin wasn’t a bad guy. He just didn’t like to govern,” Spartz said.
Midway through Spartz’s first term, Politico reported on high staff turnover in her congressional office, quoting former aides who described Spartz as a quick-tempered boss who frequently yelled at and belittled her underlings. Spartz made no effort to deny the accounts, telling Politico that her style was “not for everyone.” After winning a second term that fall, however, Spartz quickly announced that she would not seek office in 2024—forgoing both a third bid for the House and open statewide races for governor and Senate in Indiana.
Her departure, she insisted to me, represents a break from politics, and not a retirement. “Sometimes it’s good to take some time off,” Spartz said. She denied that any of the drama of the past two years—the war in Ukraine, the speaker fights, criticism of her management—contributed to her decision to leave. Her children are now teenagers, Spartz said, and she wants to spend more time with them.
Still, Spartz doesn’t quite seem at peace with her plans. Given her past shifts, I asked if she still might change her mind and run again. She wouldn’t, she said, but with a caveat: “Unless I get real upset!”
Given the volatility of the past year in Congress, that’s a threat it would be wise not to ignore.