Brain drain worries grow as energy, climate lawmakers exit

By Nico Portuondo, Timothy Cama | 01/09/2024 06:44 AM EST

Congress will be losing prominent legislators from top committees, scrambling the landscape of energy and environment policymaking.

Reps. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) and Michael Burgess (R-Texas).

House Energy and Commerce Committee members Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) and Michael Burgess (R-Texas) in 2020 when she chaired the Health Subcommittee and he was the panel's ranking member. Both are leaving Congress at the end of their current term. Susan Walsh/AP

This story was updated at 10 a.m. EST.

A host of lawmakers who have announced they are leaving Congress also play key roles in energy and environmental policy, sparking concerns of brain drain.

Among the planned departures are major figures in the sector, including Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chair Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), Environment and Public Works Chair Tom Carper (D-Del.), Agriculture Chair Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.).


But the GOP is also losing numerous lawmakers in senior positions, like Reps. Bill Johnson (R-Ohio), John Curtis (R-Utah), Larry Bucshon (R-Ind.), Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.) and Michael Burgess (R-Texas).

There is already jockeying to fill some gaps, including a coveted subcommittee gavel Johnson holds on the Energy and Commerce Committee. Other lawmakers are eyeing the chance to slide into new roles on the influential panel.

No committee has been harder hit by the recent spate of retirements than E&C. Eight lawmakers have announced their departure since Oct. 17, nine in all.

Many of those lawmakers are some of the panel’s most experienced and influential members. Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) will have served there for more than 26 years at the time of her departure, while Burgess will have served close to 20.

“These members that have served on the committee have such knowledge, institutional memory,” said Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.). “It’s a big loss.”

In all, 44 lawmakers have either left the House or plan to do so. That number is eight in the Senate.

‘A lot of catching up to do’

Members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee in January 2023.
Members of the Energy and Commerce Committee attend an organizational meeting on Jan. 31, 2023. | Francis Chung/POLITICO

Johnson’s loss will be a sizable one for environmental regulation. He chairs the Environment, Manufacturing and Critical Materials Subcommittee.

He plans to leave later this month to become president of Youngstown State University. His perch is already attracting interest from panel members.

“There’s a whole lot of institutional knowledge with Bill Johnson,” said Rep. Buddy Carter (R-Ga.). “We may have a lot of catching up to do there when you lose somebody like him.”

Johnson has been a vocal promoter of fossil fuels and particularly of coal and natural gas, both of which are produced in his district and are major economic drivers there.

He’s been a leader in GOP fights against environmental regulations, such as EPA’s crackdown on soot, and on efforts to expand liquefied natural gas exports.

When asked in December who he thought might be interested in the position, Carter wasn’t shy. “I do know someone interested. I see him all the time in the mirror,” he said.

Rep. Buddy Carter (R-Ga.).
Rep. Buddy Carter (R-Ga.) speaking on the House floor in 2020. | House Television/AP

Bucshon, another member of the subcommittee, announced his retirement Monday, though he will continue to vie for the gavel, according to a spokesperson.

Subcommittee Vice Chair John Joyce (R-Pa.) is considered a contender, as is Gary Palmer (R-Ala.), who has focused on Chinese mineral issues. Neither responded to requests for comment.

Rep. Morgan Griffith (R-Va.), chair of the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee, said he “would be hard-pressed to leave” his current position but didn’t dismiss making a jump.

“I’m going to keep all options open,” he said.

A Republican spokesperson for the committee said that “E&C has a deep bench of members eager and prepared to step into the role.”

Curtis, the Utah Republican, will be another big loss. He is founder of the Conservative Climate Caucus and is vice chair of the panel’s Energy, Climate and Grid Security Subcommittee. Last week, he announced a bid to run for Senate to replace the retiring Mitt Romney, a Republican, leaving his House seat open.

More to come?

 Rep. Larry Bucshon speaks on the House floor.
Rep. Larry Bucshon (R-Ind.) is the latest lawmaker to announce retirement. | House Television via AP

Since 2007, 20 members on average have either left or joined Energy and Commerce in each Congress, according to an analysis by E&E News. Political frustrations on Capitol Hill have members thinking more retirements may be coming.

“My opinion is on both sides of the aisle, you’re gonna see a few more retirements than you would normally see,” said Bucshon last year before his own announcement. “There is an underlying frustration with the lack of progress in Congress in a bipartisan way.”

Burgess, a senior Energy and Commerce lawmaker, ran unsuccessfully in 2020 to be its top Republican member.

“If you want to come to Congress and do good, this is the committee you want to be on,” said Burgess. “I can’t enumerate all of the things I look back on with regular satisfaction. … The country is better for the work that we have done.”

While the highlights of his record on the panel are mainly related to health care, he’s also been an outspoken advocate for the oil and natural gas industry that dominates Texas and has pushed for more domestic fossil fuel production.

Eshoo, who lost a bid to be the top Democrat on the panel in 2014, has mainly focused on health care issues. But she has also boosted renewable energy and sought to lower emissions.

Fading, rising stars

Rep. Debbie Lesko (R-Ariz.).
Rep. Debbie Lesko (R-Ariz.) has been outspoken on energy issues during her brief time on Capitol Hill. | House Television

Additional losses on the committee include Tony Cárdenas (D-Calif.), John Sarbanes (D-Md.) and Debbie Lesko (R-Ariz.).

Lesko has championed bills fighting Biden administration efficiency standards. Sarbanes has led on Chesapeake Bay issues.

McMorris Rodgers and ranking member Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) will have to begin to consider replacements. Those picks, with input from committee leadership, will be made by the parties’ respective steering committees and ratified by the caucuses late next year.

It’s still early, but Rep. Sean Casten (D-Ill.), who recently led a permitting package with Rep. Mike Levin (D-Calif.) and is a frequent congressional voice on energy issues, has historically signaled his interest in joining the committee.

The shake-up might also present an opportunity for less senior members to take on more responsibility.

Rep. August Pfluger (R-Texas) has been a favorite among leadership for his Permian Basin perspective and even got a field hearing in his district.

“August is a shining star on the committee, and we’re glad to have him,” said Energy, Climate and Grid Security Subcommittee Chair Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.).

Either way, committee leadership will have its work cut out for it to replace the lawmakers going out the door.

“The people are leaving all outstanding; every one of them has contributed in a major way to the committee, to the Congress,” said Pallone.

Other losses

Rep. Dan Kildee speaks with reporters departs a House Democratic Caucus meeting at the U.S. Capitol.
Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.) has been a leader in water and chemical issues. | Francis Chung/POLITICO

Some of the departures outside of Energy and Commerce could also hit hard, such as Kildee, a senior member of the Ways and Means Committee.

He’s been a vocal advocate for the auto industry and clean drinking water, as he represents Flint, Michigan, the site of the lead contamination water crisis that peaked in 2016.

Kildee said he was encouraged that more people have taken up the baton on water issues. “When I got here, I felt like I was the only person talking about [water],” Kildee said. “Now, it’s something that the country seems to have accepted as an issue that’s important.”

But he is worried about Michigan’s loss of seniority in Congress, pointing to departures of high-profile lawmakers like Reps. John Dingell (D) and David Camp (R) and Senate Agriculture Chair Stabenow’s upcoming retirement.

“That could be concerning, losing the regional voice and senior positions,” said Kildee.

Environmental champions have also lost big voices: Rep. Don McEachin (D-Va.) died in 2022, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) died earlier this year. McEachin was a leader on environmental justice, and Feinstein was a champion of conservation and Western water policy.

And Lamborn, the Colorado Republican and current vice chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, announced his retirement last week.

He was previously chair of the Natural Resources Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources and later led its Water, Oceans and Wildlife Subcommittee.

‘I’m hoping that they lose every chairman’

The Senate isn’t losing as many lawmakers, but among Manchin, Carper and Stabenow, the loss of institutional memory could be significant.

Carper said he’s nonetheless optimistic about the future.

“We have a very, very strong bench, with respect to protecting this planet of ours and better ensuring clean air, clean water and addressing climate change,” he said.

Still, it won’t be easy.

“We obviously have got a lot of heavy lifting to do,” said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), a former ENR Committee chair, who is not retiring.

He said he’s prepared to work with the next round of Democratic Senate leaders on energy and environmental issues, like Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island and Brian Schatz of Hawaii.

“I work closely with them now. They care a lot about a lot of those issues,” he said, pointing to proposals on issues like electricity transmission.

Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) is widely expected to be the top Democrat on ENR; Whitehouse is viewed similarly at EPW.

Senate Republicans are focused on trying to take the majority in this year’s elections, which would give them control of committee chairs, said Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), the Energy and Natural Resources ranking member, who could rise to lead the panel.

“I’m hoping that they lose every chairman,” Barrasso said of Democrats, “because we are focused on taking back the Senate.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated Sen. John Barrasso’s (R-Wyo.) committee assignments. He is no longer a member of the Environment and Public Works Committee.