Capitol Hill is still trying to digest the biggest news of the week from the halls of Congress, as the decision of Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) to not run for re-election in 2018 – and maybe resign his seat in Congress before the end of his term – could open up a fight for the chairmanship of a key House committee, even as many wonder why Chaffetz would just walk away from that powerful post.
Here is a look from Capitol Hill:
1. Chaffetz giving up a prime committee chairmanship. The House Oversight Committee has a broad charter, allowing its leader to conduct reviews on all sorts of possible wrongdoing in the federal government. In 2015 and 2016, Chaffetz used some of that spotlight to zero in on the Hillary Clinton email server matter from her time as Secretary of State, as he vowed that if Clinton became President, those investigations would continue. Obviously, things changed when Donald Trump won the White House instead of Clinton. But did that somehow make this committee chairmanship less attractive? Imagine the oversight you could do – with a friendly Trump Administration – that might then translate into major legislative and bureaucratic changes in the operations of Uncle Sam.
2. Chaffetz denies there is any scandal involved. The sudden announcement on Wednesday that Chaffetz would not run in 2018 clearly caught many by surprise on the Hill. Words like “odd” and “strange” were frequently heard in the hallways, as many reporters and lawmakers tried to figure out why the Chairman of the House Oversight Committee would head for the exits, just a few months after his party took charge of both houses of Congress and the White House. Like many Republicans in the Congress, Chaffetz had never served with a Republican President until January 20 of this year. Three months later, the Utah Republican has decided the grass is greener away from Capitol Hill and the Congress.
3. Most lawmakers don’t leave by choice between elections. Let’s take Chaffetz at his word, that he is not leaving early for any reason other than he wants to spend more time with his family and stop the political grind. Experience though shows that is not usually the way things go for House members. In the last Congress for example, four members left because of ethics or criminal investigations (Schock, Whitfield, Grimm and Fattah); Two members died during their terms (Takai and Nunelee); Two left early because they were elected to another office (Hahn, Miller). The sole House member to leave on his own was Speaker John Boehner – and only when it became apparent he might be booted out of that post by his own party.
4. It’s rare, but some do leave Congress for another job. Let’s be fair – while it doesn’t happen very often, there are members who just decide they want to do something else, and leave Capitol Hill during their term. A few recent examples come to mind from early 2013: Rep. Jo Ann Emerson (R-MO) left to run the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association; Rep. Jo Bonner (R-AL) took a job in the University of Alabama education system; Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) left to run the Heritage Foundation. Rep. Jane Harman (D-CA) left for the Woodrow Wilson International Center. This type of move though is a recent phenomena. When I first started working in the halls of Congress in 1980, you pretty much only left the House or Senate before the next election if you died, ran afoul of the law, or moved to another elected office.
5. Reading the social media tea leaves. When Chaffetz announced his decision on Wednesday, he thanked supporters on Twitter and Facebook for their praise. “Many thanks for all the kind comments…. Thank you!” he wrote on Twitter. “Thank you very much. Very kind,” he answered to one well-wisher on Facebook, a few hours after announcing he would not run again in 2018. But by Thursday, as Chaffetz confirmed that he might leave Congress before his term ended, the Utah Republican posted only one thing on his Twitter and Facebook accounts, a web story that was about his wife. “Julie Chaffetz, Jason’s Wife: 5 Fast Facts You Need to Know.”
6. Is this more about the future of Republicans? Some wondered whether Chaffetz simply looked ahead in his own future, and saw political challengers barreling at him on a number of fronts – and decided it might be best to step aside now, before being roughed up in 2018. Democrats were ready to fund a candidate against him. Some Republicans were already pushing for the mayor of Provo to primary Chaffetz. And Chaffetz was already feeling the heat locally and nationally over his reluctance to probe any links between the Trump Administration and Russia.