Whatever happens on Election Day, retirements have already guaranteed that the power relationships in the 105th Congress will be significantly different from those of the 104th.
The Senate is undergoing its largest voluntary turnover ever, with 13 senators stepping down at once. In the House, 47 members already have signaled their intention to go; while short of the record (65 in 1992), this is the third consecutive election year with unusually high retirements.The retirements will cost a handful of states much of their accustomed influence, changing the balance of power between the states and regions.
And the preponderance of Democrats among the departees (8 of 13 in the Senate, 28 of 47 in the House) will make it much more difficult for the Democrats to recapture control in either chamber.
A key polling question, the generic ballot, asks respondents whether they will vote for the Republican or Democratic candidate this fall. Recent polls on this question have favored the Democrats.
But open seats usually are harder to win. That is why, with every seat that comes open in their own ranks, the Democrats' task gets more difficult. It is bad enough to need 19 seats to pull even, without having to sweat out the defense of 28 Democratic vacancies.
"Given the poll numbers on generic voting intention, the open seats constitute the Republican Party's best hope for maintaining control of the House," said John J. Pitney Jr., an associate professor of government at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif.
Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., begs to differ. Because the generic vote favors the Democrats, he says, it is better for his colleagues to retire this year than at a time when voters are tilting toward Republicans.
"It is good for your party to have them leave these seats in a year in which it is a good year 1/8for the party3/8," Frank said.
Democrats also think they can capitalize on GOP retirements this time around. They see a number of Republicans departing in districts that generally lean Democratic. One example is the 3rd District in western Wisconsin, which is being vacated by eight-term Republican Rep. Steve Gunderson.
Gunderson, the only openly gay Republican in the House, has been able to hold the seat without much trouble because of his moderate views and strict attention to dairy issues. Now that he's quitting, Democrats have a real shot to win.
In some cases, the only thing standing between losing a seat and keeping it is the incumbent. Southern New Jersey's 2nd District was represented by Democrat William J. Hughes for two decades. When Hughes retired, conservative Republican Frank A. LoBiondo won the seat in 1994 with 65 percent of the vote.
"They get to know you as a person and they'll tolerate philosophical differences," said John Shadegg, R-Ariz., chairman of the political action committee called GOPAC. "Once that's gone, it's a fair battle."
Several states will lose significant influence in Congress because of the retirement of some of their senior House or Senate members. Hardest hit, perhaps, is Oregon.
When the current Congress convened, Oregon's two senators, Bob Packwood and Mark O. Hatfield, chaired the two most powerful committees in the chamber - the Finance Committee and the Appropriations Committee.
But Packwood resigned in October 1995 after being threatened with expulsion for sexual misconduct and obstruction of justice, and the Finance chairmanship shifted to Sen. William V. Roth Jr., R-Del.
Then Hatfield announced he would retire.
"Oregon is going to take the biggest hit in terms of loss of clout of any state in the union," said Bill Lunch, a political scientist at Oregon State University. "You can't lose 60 years of seniority without being enormously diminished."
Another major loser could be Kansas, depending on the outcome of Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole's presidential campaign. If he wins, Dole can certainly look out for the state's interests. But if he falls short, Kansas will fall a long way indeed.
A defeated Dole could well be supplanted as Senate Republican leader, and the state's other senator, Republican Nancy Landon Kassebaum, chairman of the Labor and Human Resources Committee, is retiring.
On the House side, Kansas is losing GOP Reps. Pat Roberts and Jan Meyers, who chair the House Agriculture Committee and the House Small Business Committee, respectively.
Roberts is running for Kassebaum's seat, and Meyers is retiring.
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.)