WASHINGTON — Retiring Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Calif., will now learn what it's like to be a lame duck. It's a handicap, but also a liberation.
Cardoza has about 14 months left in Congress, following his retirement announcement Thursday. Inevitably, setting his departure date will cost him some juice.
Staffers will start to depart, and experienced replacements will become harder to lure. Colleagues will be looking over his shoulder toward the future. Calls might not get returned as quickly. He'll have fewer favors to trade.
The lame-duck status could affect Cardoza's ability to shape the next farm bill, which Congress will complete next year. The bills he's introduced, like one to encourage solar power, could languish.
"It's a different experience," said former Rep. George Radanovich of California, who likewise announced his retirement a year prior to his leaving the last Congress. "It's a winding down, and the winding down begins on the day you announce."
All in all, the rules attending the rise and fall of political power are as remorseless as the law of gravity, and Cardoza will not be the only one feeling the effects. Five other members of the House of Representatives and eight senators have already announced their retirement at the end of the 112th Congress, and more will come. Fifteen House members are seeking other office.
"You're less relevant in the Washington world," Radanovich said Friday of those who announce they're leaving, "and other people make adjustments."
Amid the diminishment, though, there also comes opportunity.
"The biggest advantage is that he's free to do his job without the pressures of fundraising and running for re-election," former Rep. Richard Pombo of California said of Cardoza. "It gives him a little over a year to do what he wants."
Scott Nishioki, chief of staff for Rep. Jim Costa, D-Calif., elaborated that a retiring lawmaker becomes "a free agent" who may feel less constrained by party discipline.
"He can vote his conscience, and maybe he can do a little bit more of what he wants to do," Nishioki said of Cardoza.
Last year, Cardoza voted with a majority of his fellow Democrats 93 percent of the time. If party ties are loosened from now on, he could potentially gain more bipartisan clout, though that also depends on Republican leaders' willingness to court a man who GOP spokesmen denounced Thursday as a "lieutenant" of liberal Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi.
His pending retirement also could further loosen Cardoza's tongue, a possibility already hinted at in his retirement announcement.
"I am dismayed by the administration's failure to understand and effectively address the current housing foreclosure crisis," Cardoza declared, stressing his "disappointment" with the White House.
First elected in 2002, Cardoza can start drawing an annual congressional pension of about $29,000 once he turns 62, under a federal formula. Lame ducks with longer service get more. Retiring Rep. Dale Kildee, D-Mich., first elected in 1976, will receive about $153,000 annually.
The 52-year-old Cardoza has not said what he will do after he leaves the House of Representatives. His future career prospects could turn, to some degree, on his comportment over the coming year.
Though his departure avoids a primary battle with his congressional colleague Costa, a longtime friend and ally, the fact that Cardoza is leaving of his own volition could help ease his passage and sustain some clout. He has neither the taint of losing an election, nor the bitterness that can come from it.
Cardoza's predecessor, Gary Condit, by contrast, lamed himself even more following his 2002 defeat in a Democratic primary. After losing to Cardoza, Condit checked out. He stopped attending key farm bill sessions. He provided Cardoza no transition help, though his staffers did. He skipped the last 14 votes of the year.
Condit's predecessor, Tony Coelho, left no time for being a lame duck, as he departed Congress in June 1989 only two weeks after he announced he would be leaving.
Sometimes, by contrast, lame-duck status can actively help a member, if his colleagues pitch in with a farewell favor. With House Democrats in the minority, Cardoza may not attract such legacy burnishing, but it could happen.
"A lot of it really depends on the (congressional) leadership, in terms of how they will treat him," Pombo said.
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