In an age of incumbency, it's all the more important to have fresh choices for Utah voters. When Utah Rep. Rob Bishop mentioned in off-the-cuff fashion during a recent town hall meeting that his next term in office will be his last, it was not quite a bombshell, but certainly an interesting decision given the dynamics of tenure in the U.S. Congress and the almost infallible strength of incumbency. Bishop said his last term shall be his next term beginning in 2018, should he be re-elected, which the odds would strongly favor, as they would favor his being re-elected again after that.
Incumbents win re-election 94 percent of the time, even during periods as we are in in which Congress suffers extraordinarily low public approval ratings. Bishop is popular in his solidly Republican district. His decision, upon which he has not elaborated, may be based on personal considerations as opposed to any philosophical commitment to the notion that nearly two decades in Congress is enough time for any individual member.
While Bishop has served conscientiously, we respect his decision to move on and welcome the opportunity for new blood in Utah’s 1st Congressional District. The former high school history teacher and speaker of the Utah House has been quietly effective in areas of natural resources and lands policies, although his plans for a grand compromise concerning Bears Ears never materialized, resulting in a politicized monument designation process and ongoing debate. One consideration that may have influenced his decision to walk away from Capitol Hill is the fact that because of congressional rules, he will be able to serve only one more term as chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee.
If he completes his ninth term, he will have served roughly twice as long as the average member of Congress, though that hall has seated members who have stayed far longer. Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., left Congress last year after 59 years in the House — a career longer than most workers in any field of labor. Extraordinarily long terms of congressional service are a phenomenon of the modern age. All of the six congressmen who served for more than 50 years did so within the last 75 years. Earlier in our history, lengthy terms in the House were far less common.
That phenomenon is the result of several factors, including the way parties have become so effective in drawing district boundaries. In Bishop’s case, as with others in Congress, re-election is little more than an exercise in affixing a rubber stamp. In typically laconic fashion, Bishop made his decision public in a somewhat impromptu manner with no fanfare or drama. For that, he deserves credit. The accolades he has earned for his service will more appropriately be bestowed upon the actual time of his departure. In the meantime, those attracted to the concept of term limits for elected officials should appreciate his decision, particularly as it comes at a time when departure from Congress is more often the choice of the member than the choice of the electorate.