Facing political headwinds, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen announced Monday that he will not seek re-election and will retire at the end of his term. He joins a lengthy list of GOP veterans — and powerful committee chairs — leaving Capitol Hill at year's end.
The New Jersey Republican was facing his first competitive re-election race in decades. He is the eighth committee chair to head for the exits, though unlike many of the others, Frelinghuysen is new in his chairmanship and retained years of eligibility under GOP term limit rules for committee helms.
Frelinghuysen said in a statement he was proud of his efforts to work in a bipartisan manner to advance the annual spending bills that make up almost one-third of the federal budget. He became chairman of the Appropriations Committee last year after serving for several years as chairman of its defense subcommittee.
Frelinghuysen's year in charge of the panel, however, has been frustrating. Though he helped successfully negotiate a catchall spending bill last spring, the appropriations process for the ongoing budget year has been hamstrung by delays in the Senate and faces the very real danger of running aground completely amid an unrelated months-long battle over immigration.
"Serving as chairman of the Appropriations Committee is a difficult and sometimes thankless job," said Rep. Nita Lowey of New York, the panel's top Democrat.
No longer does the prestigious post come with perks such as the capacity to direct tens or even hundreds of millions to one's district or state for "earmarked" pet projects.
Republican leaders have usurped much of the power held by chairmen of a previous era. House GOP rules mean chairmen cycle through six-year terms, which also counts time as ranking minority member. Chairmen are selected by a leadership panel that takes factors such as fundraising and conservative litmus tests into consideration.
Old-timers such as former Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., say the system centralizes legislative authority with party leaders, who are often less versed in the nuts and bolts of legislation and have little appreciation for the committee's bipartisan traditions.
"I often would laugh, express frustration together with Rosa DeLauro, who's as liberal as she can be," Kingston recalled of one of his Democratic counterparts on Appropriations until he left Congress in 2015. "We said if leadership of both parties would get the heck out of the way, we could get something done."
A moderate Republican in both his politics and temperament, Frelinghuysen was first elected in the 1994 GOP wave that put Republicans in control of both chambers. He hails from a New Jersey political dynasty that dates to the late 1700s. His father, Peter Frelinghuysen, served in the House for two decades.
Unlike several other GOP chairmen to announce their retirements after running up against GOP term limit rules for panel heads, Frelinghuysen had years to go as Appropriations chair — assuming Republicans retain control of the House in the 2018 midterm elections. But he angered some conservative lawmakers over votes against the GOP tax overhaul measure last year and his opposition to an initial version of the party's effort to repeal former President Barack Obama's health care law.
President Donald Trump's sagging popularity is weighing on once-safe Republicans in educated, wealthier suburban districts such as Frelinghuysen's, where some residents could be negatively affected by provisions in the new tax law that went into effect this year.
Though it offers rate cuts to nearly every U.S. household, the law also hits high tax, high cost of living states like New Jersey by limiting the deductibility of mortgage interest and state and local taxes.
Still, Frelinghuysen's vote against the GOP's tax law was highly unusual and was seen as a signal of his political vulnerability. And it was unheard of for such a high-ranking chairman to buck the leadership line on such a major vote.
Probably the leading Democrat for Frelinghuysen's seat is former federal prosecutor and former Navy helicopter pilot Mikie Sherrill. She has the backing of local party leaders.
Republican insiders say Frelinghuysen's decision wasn't entirely a surprise. They say several potential candidates could build viable campaigns quickly.
Among the possible GOP candidates is a trio of state lawmakers: Assemblyman Jay Webber, Assemblyman Anthony M. Bucco, and Sen. Joe Pennacchio. Another prominent name mentioned is attorney Rosemary Becchi.
Frelinghuysen's district had long leaned Republican but was carried only narrowly by Trump in 2016. Nonpartisan analysts say Democrats have a good chance to grab it in this year's midterms.
"This district has been held by a Republican since the 1980s, and we plan to keep it that way in November," said Rep. Steve Stivers, R-Ohio, chairman of the House GOP's campaign arm.
Frelinghuysen took the lead in the House in a difficult 2013 effort to provide about $60 billion to help New Jersey and other northeastern states recovery from Superstorm Sandy.
"Public service is an incredible way to turn your convictions into something that serves the greater good and to do it alongside people from every walk of life and background," Frelinghuysen said.