In retirement, members of Congress truly find their voice

 Image source  NYMag
Image source NYMag

By Michael K. Romano

It seemed antithetical. Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC), a well-known conservative firebrand whose claim to fame in Congress had been chairing the House Select Committee on Benghazi, stated in a CNN interview that he was elated to leave Congress because he liked a job where “facts mattered.” CNN correspondent Alisyn Camerota could be heard choking back a laugh as she asked the follow-up, “And facts don’t matter in Congress?”

If this seems out of character for an up-and-coming member of Congress, you are right. Members of Congress rarely make statements that call out the institution so bluntly, especially when their party holds a congressional majority. And yet, Gowdy’s statement seems commonplace in the current Congress, and his is not even the most indignant example of the trend.

So why is this occurring? What is the common thread that links these incidents? One word: retirement.

Retirement Changes, But Not in Ways You’d Expect

 When representatives are elected, they implicitly sign a “contract” with the public; agreeing to exchange part of their autonomy in return for the power to make decisions on behalf of their constituents. Theories of representation often describe this exchange and how it works, but at its heart is a simple transaction, which is renewed every time a representative seeks reelection. When a representative retires, however, the contract is broken, and the electoral connection is severed.

At this point, legislators are no longer beholden to upholding the values and opinions of the public: they are free to behave as they wish. If a representative succumbs to this desire, we say they have “shirked” their responsibilities with the public. Shirking can take a variety of forms once representatives choose retirement, but research generally has found that retirement does not lead to changes in voting behavior. Lawmakers may also shirk by changing the way they speak when addressing the public. That is to say, lawmakers may be willing to “speak freely” once the public can no longer punish them for expressing their personal views.

In my own research, I examine this form of shirking, which I call “cognitive shirking.” I collected remarks from the Congressional Record made by members on the House floor between 1997 and 2007. Using content analysis, I then compared language used by members before and after announcing retirement, leading up to the end of their final term. I analyzed specifically patterns in language that are related to psychological traits associated with “complex thinking,” including measures of certainty, diversity of opinion, and inclusiveness.

What I Found When I Looked at Congressional Language

My hypothesis is that members who shirk in their language should display greater degrees of complexity when speaking to the public. Retirement will cause legislative language to go through a “shock” of inconsistency when compared to pre-retirement language. The idea behind this is that if you remove the threat of backlash for saying the “wrong thing,” representatives are more likely to view the world with greater complexity (that is, less “black and white” surety and more “shades of grey”).

What I find is that retiring representatives do in fact display wide variation in the complexity of their language compared to remaining legislators. As the clock ticks down to the end of a legislator’s final term, we see that their language goes through bouts of erratic behavior, indicative of the attempt to adjust to the fact that the public can no longer hold them accountable for their language. Looking at the standard twenty-four month length of a House term, we can see clearly how retirement leads to cognitive “shocks” in language. Retiring representatives shirk most in the first few months after choosing to retire — during their first taste of freedom. They then slowly return to stable patterns of thinking and speaking as they approach their term’s end.

It is worth noting that these findings crossed geographic and partisan divides. The only intervening factor that affected the findings was ideology. Interestingly, ideologues appeared to embrace more complex ways of thinking once they chose to retire. Based on this finding, it appears then that the electoral connection serves as a strong deterrent against unchecked ideological thinking.

What Does This Mean for Congress?

If it appears that the Republicans in Congress seem to be in discord, we can likely place the blame on the number of retirements that have been announced leading up to the 2018 midterm election. Based on current numbers for 2018, we are seeing the second highest number of retirements since 1994, when the House-Bank Scandal pushed many representatives to leave office prematurely. This increase in exiting legislators, especially in such a polarized environment, makes for a perfect combination for representatives to speak openly. Constituents need not worry, as this will likely not affect voting patterns over the final months of 2018. But we should expect representatives to speak out more firmly when they see things they don’t like occurring in the halls of government. In all likelihood, there will be plenty of fodder to attack.

Michael Romano is an assistant professor of political science at Shenandoah University.

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