A Bicameral Perspective on Legislative Retirement: The Case of the Senate

By Bernstein, Jeffrey L.; Wolak, Jennifer | Political Research Quarterly, June 2002 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

A Bicameral Perspective on Legislative Retirement: The Case of the Senate

Bernstein, Jeffrey L., Wolak, Jennifer, Political Research Quarterly

Existing theories of congressional retirement have developed in the context of the House of Representatives and thus do not consider important differences between the Senate and the House. Our empirical analysis of Senate retirement from 1962 to 2000 demonstrates that retirement decisions of Senators are not affected by the same things that affect their House colleagues' decisions; electoral safety and the value of formal institutional positions influence Senators less than House members. Senate retirement decisions are affected by the age of the member and majority-- party status. We discuss implications of our results for the Senate's operation and place in the constitutional system.

When considering membership change in Congress, most attention is focused on election contests. The spectacle of two candidates campaigning tirelessly for office, combined with the potential drama of surprising wins and losses, draws more interest than decisions of members to retire. Nonetheless, the greatest source of membership change in Congress is not electoral defeat but instead is voluntary departure due to retirement or seeking higher office (Ornstein, Mann, and Malbin 2000). Given this, the importance of studying retirement becomes clear.

White we know much about the individual-level motives behind retirements in the U.S. House, research on career decisions in the Senate is sparse. Given the importance of retirement in determining the Senate's membership, it is surprising that so little research has been done on individual-level determinants of Senate retirements (see Livingston and Friedman 1993 for an exception). In this study, we attempt to remedy this deficiency by studying retirement from the Senate between 1962 and 2000. We argue that much of our understanding of legislative retirement developed in the context of the House. While this literature does well in explaining House retirements, its explanations do not extend to the Senate. Significant differences between the House and Senate require further exploration of the determinants of Senate retirement.

We begin with a discussion of the importance of the study of legislative retirement and with a brief review of the differences in House and Senate retirement rates. Next, we review the literature on House retirements. We then evaluate the significant House-Senate differences that cast doubt on the utility of the House retirement literature for our present purposes. Following this, we suggest hypotheses for the determinants of Senate retirement and empirically evaluate such a model. We conclude with a discussion of some of the implications of our findings.


Legislative retirement matters. First and foremost, individual-level retirement affects congressional policymaking. Since most members of Congress remain stable in their policy preferences during the course of their careers (Asher and Weisberg 1978), membership change becomes a clear path to policy change in Congress (along with change in party leadership or in the executive). Moreover, retirement provides a significant source of competition in congressional elections. When retirement occurs, competition for the seat increases (Jacobson 1997 on the House; Abramowitz and Segal 1992 on the Senate). Thus, in years with more retirements, we will see more competitive elections for the vacated seats than would have occurred had the incumbents sought reelection.

Understanding retirement and its determinants also tells us about what members value in their congressional service and how the institutional design of a legislature affects their satisfaction. For example, Hibbing's (1982b) explanation of higher House retirement rates in the 1970s rests on the decade's weakened seniority norm; members chose to leave when they learned that their years of service would no longer automatically translate into committee chairships. This tells us that members value guarantees of formal positions of influence and find congressional service less satisfying when they do not receive them.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

A Bicameral Perspective on Legislative Retirement: The Case of the Senate


Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?