WASHINGTON – After two decades in Congress, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers announced Thursday she will not run for re-election in November.
The Spokane Republican rose into a GOP leadership role after she was first elected in 2004, then changed course in 2018 and opted to focus on lawmaking. She took the helm of the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee at the start of 2023 and has been a prominent critic of the Biden administration while advancing bipartisan legislation aimed at reining in tech companies, reducing health care costs and more.
In a statement provided to The Spokesman-Review, McMorris Rodgers thanked her staff and credited her family with giving her support and motivation throughout her two-decade career in the House or Representatives.
“It’s been the honor and privilege of my life to represent the people of Eastern Washington in Congress,” she said. “They inspire me every day. They are part of the strength and soul of America – the greatest experiment in self-governance the world has ever known. After much prayer and reflection, I’ve decided the time has come to serve them in new ways.”
McMorris Rodgers, 54, was not immediately available for an interview on Thursday. Her decision is part of a wave of retirements from the House and Senate, including Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor, who announced in November that he wouldn’t seek re-election. As of Thursday, 41 House members had announced they wouldn’t seek re-election to their seats.
While a staunch conservative, McMorris Rodgers is one of several Republicans widely seen as part of the party’s establishment wing who have left Congress or announced plans to do so in recent months as the House has been roiled by GOP hardliners who ousted former Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., in October. She is the third leader of a House committee to announce plans to retire this Congress, following Appropriations Chair Kay Granger of Texas and Financial Services Chair Patrick McHenry of North Carolina.
McCarthy, who was elected as speaker in January 2023 after 15 rounds of voting exposed deep rifts in the GOP, left Congress at the end of the year, before his term expired. After weeks of drama and more failed votes, Mike Johnson of Louisiana was elected speaker after being nominated by McMorris Rodgers, a close ally of the new speaker.
In a statement, Johnson said McMorris Rodgers’ decision to leave Congress represents “a tremendous loss for the institution,” calling her “one of the most respected leaders in Congress.”
“Cathy is a person of high principle and deep faith, who has been a close friend and confidant of mine and so many others,” Johnson said, adding that he was honored when she nominated him for speaker in October. “We are all saddened by her retirement, but certainly happy for the next chapter in her life. May God continue to bless Cathy and her family for their years of faithful service and sacrifice.”
Born Cathy McMorris in Salem, Oregon, the congresswoman grew up in Kettle Falls and married Brian Rodgers, a retired Navy commander, in 2006. In her statement, McMorris Rodgers reflected on the role her husband has played in her life and career in Congress, along with their three children, Cole, Grace and Brynn, all of whom were born during her time in the House.
“I would testify today that the greatest blessing in my life has been marrying Brian and becoming a wife and mom – my most cherished titles,” she said. “Brian is my wise and faithful counselor, the one to wipe the tears from my eyes and send me back into the arena. Together, we have been blessed with three beautiful, beloved children.”
She recalled that Cole, who was born with Down syndrome, was on the House floor in 2014 when lawmakers passed the ABLE Act, which created tax-free savings accounts for people with disabilities. Former Rep. Greg Walden of Oregon, the previous Republican chair of the Energy and Commerce Committee who retired at the end of 2020, said of his successor, “I think history will show she did amazing things for the disability community and really brought a sense of decency and honor to Congress.”
The committee’s broad jurisdiction includes health care, telecommunications and the internet, energy, food and drug safety, all interstate commerce and much more. In her statement, McMorris Rodgers said she would continue leading the committee until her term ends in December.
“Especially as Chair of the Energy and Commerce Committee, I’ve seen the best of Eastern Washington and the United States of America,” she said. “We will spend this year honoring the Committee’s rich history – plowing the hard ground necessary to legislate on solutions to make people’s lives better and ensure America wins the future.”
Speaking a few hours after The Spokesman-Review broke the news of her retirement, Walden said his phone had been lighting up with messages from D.C. insiders who were surprised that McMorris Rodgers would leave her powerful position voluntarily.
“Very seldom does somebody give it up early, and yet I think that speaks to her view of life and the world,” Walden said. “I think that’s the kind of balance you want in your elected officials, too – that it’s not about them and power. It really is, believe it or not, about trying to do good work for the people that sent them there.”
Rep. Frank Pallone of New Jersey, the top Democrat on the committee, said in a statement that working with McMorris Rodgers has been a privilege and her departure “will be an incredible loss for Congress, which I know she cares about deeply.
“It’s no secret that getting things done around here is hard work, but Cathy and I have been able to get important legislation passed to lower health care costs, increase transparency in hospital pricing, and move the ball forward on establishing a comprehensive national data privacy standard,” Pallone said. “I’m sad to hear this news and wish her nothing but the best in the next chapter, but I’m glad we have about a year left to get some important priorities across the finish line together.”
In her three years as the top Republican on Energy and Commerce, McMorris Rodgers has often worked with Sen. Maria Cantwell, a Washington Democrat who chairs the Senate Commerce Committee. In a statement, Cantwell said she was surprised by her fellow Washingtonian’s decision to retire and appreciated the work they had done together.
“She’s been a big part of our delegation for a long period of time,” Cantwell said. “I look forward to continuing to work with her for the rest of this year.”
The two women have at times disagreed over complex legislative challenges that transcend party divides, such as regulating how tech companies collect and use personal data. But Cantwell noted their collaboration to compensate the Spokane Tribe for lands flooded by the Grand Coulee Dam; honor former NFL player and Spokane native Steve Gleason with a Congressional Gold Medal; and introduce the MALDEN Act, a bill that would speed federal aid to natural disasters, named after the Whitman County town devastated by a 2020 wildfire whose residents waited months as then-President Donald Trump withheld aid over a personal feud with Gov. Jay Inslee, D-Wash.
In her announcement, McMorris Rodgers thanked her brother and their parents for supporting her since she was first elected to the Washington House of Representatives in 1994. A decade later, she was elected to Congress to succeed then-Rep. George Nethercutt when he staged an unsuccessful challenge to unseat Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.
In 2012, McMorris Rodgers was chosen by her fellow House Republicans as conference chair, making her the highest-ranking woman in GOP leadership.
Former Speaker Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican who served in leadership with McMorris Rodgers until his own retirement in 2018, called her “a talented legislator and a valuable member of my leadership team.”
“Cathy was a fantastic advocate for her district and she is leaving Congress with a long list of accomplishments which will stand the test of time,” Ryan said in a statement. “Congress’ loss is her family’s gain, and I’m so happy for Cathy and her family as they start this new phase of their lives.”
Both McMorris Rodgers and Ryan left party leadership at the end of 2018, a time when Trump was reshaping the GOP in his own image, which has sometimes appeared at odds with the Christian faith of conservatives like McMorris Rodgers. In her announcement, the Spokane lawmaker said, “Every day, my number one priority is to pray.”
“I pray that God’s purpose over my life will be more deeply rooted in my heart and in gratitude for the remarkable colleagues and people He has brought into my life,” she said. “No matter the division, we must unite in prayer. And as we do, we will bring hope and healing to broken lives, broken families, and broken systems failing broken people. Together, may we always be guided by God’s abundant grace and wisdom to keep the promise of America alive.”
The Spokane lawmaker has avoided criticizing Trump, but she quietly bucked his demands on Jan. 6, 2021, when she was one of just two House Republicans who abandoned plans to reject the election results and voted to certify President Joe Biden’s victory after Trump supporters attacked the Capitol.
In 2023, two years after becoming the top Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, she became the first woman to chair the panel. She will leave that position at the end of 2024, despite being eligible for two more years at the helm under party-imposed term limit rules.
Rep. Russ Fulcher, a Republican who represents North Idaho, said in a statement that serving alongside McMorris Rodgers in the House and on the Energy and Commerce Committee has been an honor.
“Her accomplishments while in Congress are nothing short of extraordinary,” Fulcher said. “As much as I will miss teaming up on issues to better our neighboring states, I wish nothing but the best to her and Brian as they enter this new and exciting chapter of life.”
Rep. Dan Newhouse, a Republican who represents Central Washington, called McMorris Rodgers “a conservative champion for Washington state and this country.”
“Her constituents in Eastern Washington, and Congress as an institution, are better off because of her dedicated service,” he said in a statement. “As a friend, I wish her the very best in wherever the next chapter takes her.”
Former Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, a Republican who began her career as an aide to McMorris Rodgers and went on to represent southwest Washington in the House from 2011 through 2022, said her friend and former boss taught her important lessons about being a lawmaker but also about staying close to her family, despite the frequent travel and demanding schedule the job requires.
“Serving in Congress is the honor of a lifetime, but it’s also really hard,” said Herrera Beutler, who is now running to be Washington’s commissioner of public lands. “It takes just a mammoth amount of effort to do that job for two decades and still be a wife and a mother, and she has done that.”
State Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, who was first elected to the state House in 1992, recalls meeting McMorris Rodgers, then in her early 20s, when she was working in a neighboring cubicle as a staffer for then-state Rep. Bob Morton.
The next year, she was appointed to the state House and became Schoesler’s colleague and mentee, he said. She proved herself to be a hardworking, principled politician, a devout Christian and even a talented piano player, Schoesler added.
“She rose up quickly, chaired a tough committee and served a year as minority leader before running for Congress,” he said. “And I think she set a very high standard for future members of Congress to live up to – there will never be another Cathy McMorris Rodgers.”
McMorris Rodgers didn’t indicate what she plans to do after leaving Congress, but she ended her statement with a line suggesting that whether or not she is finished with public life, she looks forward to what’s next: “The best is yet to come.”
Her departure shakes up what has been a relatively sleepy congressional race, although three Democrats have already announced campaigns to run for the seat in what has been a safely Republican district. One of those Democrats, physician and women’s health advocate Bernadine “Bernie” Bank, was in D.C. to drum up support for her run when McMorris Rodgers announced her retirement.
The Washington State Democratic Party responded to the news with a post on X, promising to work to “flip” the 5th congressional district.
“Her brand of legislative chaos will not be missed in our state’s Congressional delegation,” state Democratic Chair Shasti Conrad said in a separate statement, noting that unlike Newhouse and Herrera Beutler, McMorris Rodgers didn’t vote to impeach Trump for his role in the Jan. 6 Capitol riot.
Kim Wyman, a Republican who served as Washington’s secretary of state from 2013 to 2021 and is now a fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a D.C. think tank, said the political landscape has changed since McMorris Rodgers was first elected 20 years ago. As congressional districts have gotten safer for each party, Wyman said, lawmakers have become more afraid of being defeated by a more extreme member of their own party than by someone from the other party.
“I think that’s one of the reasons you’re seeing an exodus of some of those members who might be more willing to work across the aisle to get something done,” said Wyman, who praised McMorris Rodgers for supporting other women in politics.
“Now, because the hardcore left and the hardcore right don’t want to see that happen, you’re seeing this complete gridlock. I don’t think that’s good for our country. And I think that leaders like Cathy are realizing that they’re not going to be able to be as effective as they once were, and so maybe to make change in their own communities, they’d be better off not being in Congress. And that’s a loss for our country.”
Spokesman-Review reporter Emry Dinman contributed to this report.