10-Term Washington House Member to Leave as Chair of Powerful Committee
Northwest congressional seniority took another hit last week when 10-term Washington Republican Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers announced she won’t seek re-election. Rodgers was elected to Congress in 2004 after serving in the Washington Legislature.
Rodgers chairs the influential House Energy and Commerce Committee and is the lead negotiator with the Senate on a wide-ranging health care package, that includes pricing for prescription drugs and medical services.
Her departure follows previous retirement announcements by Oregon Congressman Earl Blumenauer and Washington Congressman Derek Kilmer, both Democrats. Washington and Oregon have a combined 16 congressional seats. The two states will continue to be represented by two of the most senior members of the Senate – Ron Wyden and Patty Murray.
As of February 10, Ballotpedia says 43 House members have announced they won’t seek re-election. Twenty-five House members – 11 Democrats and 14 Republicans – are retiring from public office. The rest are running for other offices. Seven House members – four Republicans including former Speaker Kevin McCarthy and three Democrats – departed mid-term. Former New York Republican Congressman George Santos was expelled December 1, 2023.
Advocate for People with Disabilities
Rodgers is best known for her advocacy for people with disabilities. She credits that advocacy to the inspiration of her son, Cole Rodgers, who was born with a chromosomal abnormality.
“Cole was with me on the House floor when we passed the ABLE Act, which marked a new chapter of opportunity and independence for people living with a disability,’’ Rodgers said. The legislation she shepherded to passage helps people with disabilities open tax-free savings accounts.
Switching from Politics to Policy
She served in GOP leadership for more than a decade, including as House Republican Conference chair. In 2018, she pivoted from a political role to focus on policy. She was selected as the top Republican on Energy and Commerce in 2020, serving as the first woman of either party to lead a committee delegation.
When Republicans regained control of the House in 2022, Rodgers became chair, creating an unusual situation when members from the same state chaired equivalent committees in the House and Senate. Washington Senator Maria Cantwell chairs the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science & Transportation.
Rodgers, who is 54, didn’t indicate what she will do next, but hinted “the best is yet to come.” Rodgers said her most cherished titles are “wife” and “mother,” and she praised the support of her husband, Brian Rodgers, and their children. Rodgers was the first woman to give birth three times while serving in Congress.
Rodgers Legislative Priorities
She has been a critic of Biden administration efforts to toughen air quality standards, which she says could undermine “efforts to grow America’s manufacturing base and increase our dependence on China.”
Rodgers, who is from Spokane, is an advocate for a wide array of energy sources, including hydropower and nuclear power. Earlier in her congressional career, she advocated for creation of a national park at the decommissioned Hanford site. She has accused the Biden administration of a “war on energy” and expressed support for natural gas as a substitute for coal-fired power generation.
She enjoys a positive working relationship with her Democratic committee counterpart, Congressman Frank Pallone Jr. of New Jersey. They are working to create a national data privacy standard by the end of this year after a similar measure they co-championed stalled last year.
Pallone called Rodgers’ departure an “incredible loss for Congress.” “It’s no secret that getting things done around here is hard work,” he said, “but Cathy and I have been able to get important legislation passed.”
One of her recent efforts was to lead the House debate on a bill to ban federal programs from using “quality-adjusted life years” in assessing the value of treatments. Disability advocates argue the strategy discounts people with disabilities. Democrats generally support the concept but argue the bill as written could hinder future cost-effectiveness assessments.
5th District Leans Republican
Her Eastern Washington congressional district, where she grew up on a fruit orchard, leans Republican. Donald Trump carried the district, which stretches north from Oregon to the Canadian border, by 10 points in the 2020 presidential election.
Republican campaign officials regard Washington’s 5th District as reliably red but aren’t taking retention of the seat for granted. Mary Jo Bolt, chair of the Spokane County GOP, says, “I don’t think we can just stick our head in the mud, but I do feel confident that we’ll be able to retain this seat. Having an open seat now, we’ve got a lot of work to do, but we’re prepared.”
“Because the seat is open, that makes it a little easier to flip, hypothetically,” said Erin Covey, the Cook Political Report’s House analyst, adding that a “dream recruit” for Democrats may have a chance of beating a hardline Republican.
“If in the primaries you get an extreme member of the Republican Party nominated, and in the Democratic side you get a more moderate, establishment figure, then I think the Democrats have a realistic possibility to pick up this seat,” says Cornell Clayton, director of the Thomas S. Foley Institute of Public Policy and Public Service at Washington State University. Foley represented the district from 1964 until his defeat in 1994 when he was Speaker of the House.
Potential Candidates to Succeed Rodgers
Three Democratic candidates are already in the race – Spokane County Chairwoman Carmela Conroy, obstetrician-gynecologist Bernadine Bank and small-business owner Ann Marie Danimus. Washington has a top-two primary system that advances the two candidates who garner the most primary votes regardless of party designation.
The Spokane-Review listed potential GOP candidates, noting a likely contender could be Michael Baumgartner, the Spokane County Treasurer who ran unsuccessfully in a 2012 Senate race against Cantwell.
The newspaper also named Spokane City Councilmen Jonathan Bingle and Michael Cathcart, both of whom it described as conservative., as well as Franklin County Commissioner Clint Didier, a former NFL tight end who played in two Super Bowls and ran unsuccessfully for the Senate in 2010 and the House in 2014 and 2016.
Another GOP Chair Cashes Out
Republican Congressman Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin, considered a rising star and potential Senate candidate, announced he won’t seek re-election to a fifth term. Gallagher’s profile grew this term as the hawkish chair of the House select committee on competition with China.
The decision by the 39-year-old former Marine Corps intelligence officer comes just days after he was one of four House Republicans to vote against impeaching Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, handing Speaker Mike Johnson an embarrassing House floor defeat.
Gallagher characterized his decision to end his congressional career as personal, noting he always planned to treat his service in Congress as “a deployment, not a career.” “Eight years is a long deployment, and it’s been a hell of a deployment,” Gallagher said in an interview. A married father of two, Gallagher also said he hoped to expand his family and that “Congress is not an ideal place to build and raise a family.”