It was the worst kept secret on Capitol Hill. But Thursday morning, Howard "Buck" McKeon made it official: he is retiring from Congress when he completes his current 11th term.
The House Armed Services chairman stood in his committee room to address reporters, tearing up when he said the words out loud, that he would not be a candidate for Congress this year.
McKeon served nine years on a local school board and was Santa Clarita’s first mayor. But he said he was a “true neophyte” when he ran for Congress in 1992 and won by 700 votes.
He said he still gets a thrill seeing the Capitol lit up at night, but at age 75 and in good health, he decided it was time to step down. He said the Republican House rule about term limits for committee chairmen was the main reason he was leaving Congress. Had he returned for another term, he would have lost his Armed Services chairmanship.
McKeon complained about less senior members of his own party who ignore decisions by leadership, and about President Obama, who he said “moves the goal post” when agreements are reached. But he denied that the rancor in Washington is worse than it was when he first came to Congress. “It’s called democracy,” he said, where people fight “for the things they believe in.”
McKeon said now that travel restrictions have been lifted for members of Congress, he plans to visit both political leaders and troops around the world in his last year in office.
House Speaker John Boehner called McKeon "a close friend and confidant." The two worked together on the Education & Workforce Committee, where McKeon succeeded Boehner as chairman. Boehner praised McKeon's work on Armed Services, saying no one worked harder to provide troops with "the resources they need to successfully complete the missions their nation has asked them to perform."
Fellow Armed Services Committee member, Democrat Loretta Sanchez of Anaheim, said she and the chairman disagreed about larger spending cuts. McKeon fought the mandatory cuts under the sequester; Sanchez insisted there was fat to be trimmed as the U.S. reduced its footprint in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But Sanchez said when it came to California's economy, McKeon was a good partner, boosting satellite businesses in California and increasing orders for the C-17 transport planes built in Long Beach. "On issues important to California," she said, "Buck has been there.”
McKeon said he planned to continue with the Reagan Defense Forum where military leaders meet at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley. The next one is scheduled for November 15th.
Several candidates have declared their intention of replacing McKeon in November — former Republican state senator Tony Strickland and current state senator Steve Knight, as well as Democrat Lee Rogers. The district is majority Republican – 41% to 35% Democratic, with one in four voters declining to pick a party.
McKeon is the third California lawmaker to announce his retirement from Congress. Irvine Republican Congressman John Campbell and Northern California Democrat George Miller are also leaving the House of Representatives.