Rep. Chris Stewart says it didn’t quite sink in that his time in Congress had come to an end until he looked into his rearview mirror and saw the Capitol receding behind him.

After more than a decade representing Utah’s 2nd District, Stewart was familiar with that drive to the airport and the flight attendants who greeted him as he boarded the plane.

But an unexpected congratulations over the intercom and subsequent applause from the other travelers put the five-term congressman in an even more pensive mood. He proceeded to spend the four-hour-long flight filling a notebook with lessons and stories from his time in office.

“I wrote pages of things that I’ve learned,” Stewart told the Deseret News during a phone call just hours before he would cease to be a U.S. representative. “And it made me realize it’s been such a good experience.”

From receiving top-secret briefings as a member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence — “There’s nothing in intelligence that I haven’t been exposed to and that I don’t know,” he said — to traveling to Moscow, Russia, to discuss international relations and to western China to visit the Uyghur people, Stewart says the greatest insight he has been gifted with is an understanding of the difficulties and challenges people face.

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“I essentially spent all day talking to people,” Stewart said of his time in office, recalling he once had his staff keep track of all the people he met in a week. The average came out at just under 280.

“It’s just such a great experience if you want to improve or to learn,” Stewart said.

But while Stewart says he worked until his final minute, signing and submitting his final bill as he walked out the door, there was only so much he could do in his final days to impact what he says was a “lousy week” in Congress.

“There’s a lot of anger among my colleagues. And I think more so than I’ve ever seen since I’ve been back there,” Stewart said.

Stewart’s retirement comes as the House is staring down 11 legislative days to pass 11 remaining annual spending bills before government funding expires on Sept. 30. If the appropriations bills do not advance through a House vote and a reconciliation process with the Senate before that time, a government shutdown will ensue.

That is, unless a continuing resolution is passed as a stopgap funding measure. While this seems like House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s preferred solution as the House works its way through the spending packages, the conservative House Freedom Caucus has demanded a number of conditions that make avoiding a government shutdown increasingly difficult.

McCarthy is now in a tenuous position, partially because of his slim four-seat majority. This razor-thin margin will shrink to three once Stewart is gone, and could fall to zero with House Majority Leader Steve Scalise, R-La., receiving chemotherapy treatment for blood cancer; Rep. George Santos, R-N.Y., facing federal charges; and Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Okla., recovering from hip surgery.

Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, talks with Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., in the House chamber as the House meets for a second day to elect a speaker and convene the 118th Congress in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2023.
Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, left, talks with Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., in the House chamber as the House meets for a second day to elect a speaker and convene the 118th Congress in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2023. | Alex Brandon, Associated Press

Uncertainty around Speaker McCarthy

“I’ve been through some emotional times back there from the Republican conference,” Stewart said, referencing the government shutdown shortly after he entered office and the motion to vacate the chair when John Boehner was House speaker. But this time is unique, he says.

“There’s a lot of anger and uncertainty right now,” Stewart said. “There’s a lot of us who think Kevin is a uniquely talented leader. We support him. And yet a few of our colleagues have made it impossible for him to be successful. And that makes us angry.”

And while Stewart has said on numerous occasions he will miss the kind of public service he was able to do on Capitol Hill, he won’t miss this. “I’m not going to miss this contention and the anger that so many people are kind of wallowing in right now.”

But McCarthy is sure to miss him. Stewart’s role as one of 61 representatives on the highly coveted appropriations committee (members are already angling for his seat) made him a key player in spending discussions, and his experience made him an especially influential voice in mediating between factions within the conference.

Stewart’s hunch is that after a few more days of interparty drama, House Republicans will settle on a continuing resolution deal with some conditions attached, likely relating to border security. But if asked to bet on it, Stewart says he’d offer up the change in his pocket.

“This one’s different for some reason. There’s a lot more uncertainty and there’s a kind of a simmering anger that hasn’t been there in the past on both sides,” Stewart said. “So if anyone tells you that they think they know what’s going to happen, I promise you they don’t. Kevin doesn’t.”

Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, questions former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch at the House Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Friday, Nov. 15, 2019, during the second public impeachment hearing of President Donald Trump’s efforts to tie U.S. aid for Ukraine to investigations of his political opponents.
Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, questions former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch at the House Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Friday, Nov. 15, 2019, during the second public impeachment hearing of President Donald Trump’s efforts to tie U.S. aid for Ukraine to investigations of his political opponents. | Andrew Harnik, Associated Press

What Utah loses with Stewart’s resignation

According to Kelly Patterson, a senior scholar at the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at BYU, it’s also important to remember what Utah loses with the resignation of its most senior member in the House.

“Immediately you lose seniority and influence,” Patterson told the Deseret News in June. “And it takes time for a new representative to build relationships, gain the trust of leadership in order to move into those exclusive committee assignments. And it’s not to say that the person who emerges won’t be competent, it’s just they’re starting over.”

Stewart says he can relate to the pains of transitioning from one position to the next.

“It’s lonely to sit in an office that’s being packed up,” Stewart said, describing his last few days. “Part of it is packing up the last day, but part of it is having your staff just kind of move on, and going to an office that used to be super busy and full of people and the last couple of weeks it’s been three or four people there.”

However, Stewart made it his priority to get each member of his staff a position that was better than what they currently had, he said. One such effort has surprised Stewart, the staffer in question and the state.

Rep. John Curtis and Rep. Chris Stewart speak with Celeste Maloy at the 2nd Annual Conservative Climate Summit at Utah Valley University in Orem.
Rep. John Curtis and Rep. Chris Stewart speak with Celeste Maloy at the 2nd Annual Conservative Climate Summit at Utah Valley University in Orem on Friday, Sept. 8, 2023. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Stewart on Celeste Maloy’s GOP primary win

As soon as he decided he would resign, Stewart says he sat down with his former chief legal counsel Celeste Maloy, and encouraged her to run for his seat. Maloy officially entered the 2nd Congressional District special election race in mid-June, and on June 20, the congressman endorsed her.

Days later, Maloy won the state Republican Party nominating convention in a surprise upset, followed by a victory in the Sept. 5 Republican primary. Maloy is favored to win the general election on Nov. 21 where she will face Democratic opponent Kathleen Riebe.

“I think it’s hilarious that she literally is going to move from a cubicle across the front office into my office. I just think that’s a great story,” Stewart said.

Stewart says despite the chaotic state of his conference, he’s comforted by the fact Maloy will be able to come in and pick up where he left off.

“She’s very, very bright. She works so hard, but the main reason I wanted Celeste to represent the 2nd Congressional District is for sincerity and for humility,” Stewart said. “There’s a lot of smart people in Washington. There are not very many humble people. And I think humility is the single greatest asset when it comes to real leadership.”

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As to how he will spend his time once he is no longer in the business of legislating and campaigning, Stewart’s answer is simple. He will spend even more time with the projects and the people he loves.

Stewart announced his intention to retire from Congress on May 31, citing his “wife’s health concerns.” He later clarified she had suffered a stroke a year earlier and continued to struggle with vision loss.

“Things are harder and it wasn’t fair to her to be in a situation where her health wasn’t what it used to be and to be gone all the time,” Stewart said at an event on Sept. 8. “As much as I loved serving and as much as I wanted to continue to serve, we needed to be together.”

When asked “What’s next” at the same event, Stewart said he had plans to start an organization with Robert O’Brien, national security adviser under former President Donald Trump, “where I’ll be able to continue to work in the area of intelligence and international relations and it will be really satisfying, but I won’t be gone all the time.”

Rep. Chris Stewart at a backyard event in Farmington.
Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, at a backyard event in Farmington on Thursday, Oct. 8, 2020. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News