Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon stood at the podium of the House Armed Services Committee room, looking wistful. He was there to announce the end of a 22-year career in Congress, including two terms as chairman of the powerful panel that oversees America's military.
"It's time to walk away," said the California Republican.
And with that, McKeon added his name to a growing list of veteran lawmakers hanging it up this year. So far, 13 Republicans and 11 Democrats announced pending departures, and those numbers are expected to grow.
Just days before McKeon's announcement, Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., said he was leaving after four decades, including two terms leading both the House Education and Workforce Committee and the House Natural Resources Committee.
Together, Miller, 68, and McKeon, 75, racked up more than 60 years of Capitol Hill experience, institutional knowledge that will vanish at the end of this Congress.
"I think the retirements this year are particularly significant," Rep. Bill Pascrell, a nine-term Democratic lawmaker from New Jersey, told the Washington Examiner. "It's not the numbers. It's the people who are leaving."
The latest mass exodus of Capitol Hill veterans is often read as evidence that lawmakers themselves have grown so frustrated with a gridlocked Congress that they're abandoning it. And certainly the institution's intense partisanship, low production rate and plummeting popularity have weighed on lawmakers. In his retirement announcement, McKeon said, “What you have is a real problem in trying to get things together, in trying to get things to happen.”
But a glut of retirements is a fairly routine matter every two years in Congress when some of the 535 members of the House and Senate call it quits either for personal reasons such as age or health or because their re-election prospects look dim. This year is no different, and the reasons are just as varied as in the past.
McKeon said the chief reason he's leaving is that the rules prevent him from remaining chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, leaving him without a leadership post next year.
So far, six Democrats and 10 Republicans in the House announced their retirements. In the Senate, five Democrats and three Republicans are calling it quits, and those numbers are likely to grow as re-election decisions near. In the past, it wasn't unusual to have 20 House members retire together.
Still, many of latest departures are respected veterans, including seven House members who served at least 10 terms each.
Moran told the Examiner he's leaving, in part, because partisan gridlock has made lawmakers less effective. And the public's growing distrust of government has made it impossible to pass high-impact, New Deal-style social programs to help those left behind by the economic recovery, he said.
"We've settled into a new norm," Moran said. "The government is not going to be able to play the role in people's lives that it traditionally has played."
Miller's departure is a particular blow to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a fellow Californian for whom Miller has been a top lieutenant and close friend. It was Miller who helped guide Pelosi's rise up the leadership ranks to eventually make her the first female House speaker.
Miller has seen control of the House change three times. As a Democrat, he doesn't expect to be back in the majority after elections this November, but he insists that is not why he's leaving.
"Would I prefer to have the gavel? You betcha," Miller told the Examiner. "But for me, this is about looking at a body of work. This has been a great run. Forty years is a long time, so I just said to myself, 'This makes sense.' "
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, is losing a top lieutenant of his own with the departure of Rep. Tom Latham, R-Iowa, who is leaving after nearly 20 years in office even though he was expected to easily win an 11th term.
"It is never a perfect time or a right time to step aside," Latham said. "But for me, this is the time."