RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Oklahoma Republican Tom Coburn announced last night that he is giving up his Senate seat early at the end of this congressional session. His departure won't affect the balance of the Senate. But something that might affect the House - this week, several Democrats there said they won't be running again, which could add to an already uphill battle the party is facing in its effort to win back control of the House.
For more on what the departures from the Democratic side might mean, we turn to NPR political editor Charlie Mahtesian. Good morning.
CHARLES MAHTESIAN, BYLINE: Hi, Renee.
MONTAGNE: Start with who's retiring, and any big surprises there.
MAHTESIAN: Well, this week alone, we've seen three retirements, all of them Democrats. There's Bill Owens, of upstate New York. There's George Miller, of the San Francisco area in California; and Jim Moran, of Northern Virginia. And that makes for a total of 16 House retirements so far.
And there's no real bombshell retirement this week, but I would say the Bill Owens retirement was a pretty big surprise because he hasn't actually been in Congress for that long. Miller and Moran have been in office for a couple of decades, but Owens has only served two terms. And it's a really hard road to get to Congress. So to see a member of Congress leave so soon, it's a little bit of a surprise.
MONTAGNE: Well, is there a common thread in these last several Congress people who are retiring?
MAHTESIAN: Well, there's no single explanation, but you can certainly see some broad themes that you can identify from the round of retirements over the past couple of weeks. And first is that serving in Congress at this time is just an incredibly frustrating experience for many lawmakers, and it's especially unpleasant for the centrists or moderates.
Then you have another theme, which is that some members see a rough election year ahead, and they don't relish the prospect of dragging their families through all that and then putting themselves through the ringer when the job is less satisfying than it's ever been.
And then there is, I think, for a few members - although none of them would ever really admit this - retirement is really just a reflection of their assessment that their party is not going to return to the majority anytime soon. And so they figure this is probably a pretty good time to pull the plug rather than to wait it out as a part of a relatively powerless minority for a couple more years.
MONTAGNE: Well, how does, then, this affect the Democratic Party's chances and the Republican Party's chances in November?
MAHTESIAN: Well, both parties are going to have some prime opportunities to pick up seats as a result of these 16 retirements because it's typically easier to win an open seat than knock off an incumbent in these competitive districts. So when you add it all up, the retirements haven't so far dramatically altered the election landscape.
But some of the Democrats who are retiring are leaving seats that are very conservative, and they're all but certain to elect a Republican in November. And what that means is that the Democrats, who need to win 17 seats to win back the majority - that means they're probably going to have a slightly steeper climb.
MONTAGNE: You've just then touched upon something that has been much talked about - this generational shift in Congress in recent years, where there's been a great loss of moderates. How do you think these retirements are going to change the makeup of the House?
MAHTESIAN: Well, some of the folks who are retiring have served for several decades, so there's going to be a loss of institutional knowledge and also the loss of members who can remember a time when the House was actually a little more functional than it is today. But I think your point about moderates is a really important one because that's one of the most important consequences here from the retirements.
The ideological center of the House of Representatives continues to deteriorate; which means the House seems likely to continue to harden ideologically, and it's going to remain deeply polarized. One way to look at it is that the members who are in the center, they function as the grease of the legislative machine. And without that grease, the gears and lever stop working.
MONTAGNE: With news of this week's announcement by three more Democratic House members that they're retiring, NPR's Charlie Mahtesian. Thank you very much.
MAHTESIAN: Thank you, Renee.
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