WASHINGTON — Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon (R-Santa Clarita), a onetime western wear haberdasher who rose to become chairman of the powerful House Armed Services Committee, is announcing Thursday that he will retire after more than two decades in Congress.
His departure at the close of the current term will further diminish California's clout on Capitol Hill, at least in the short term, and set the stage for a competitive race to choose his successor.
The 75-year-old McKeon has chaired the Armed Services Committee since 2011, taking a leading role in fighting spending cuts to the Pentagon, but must give up the gavel after this year because of GOP term limits for its committee leaders.
"After you've been chairman of the committee, then what do you do?" he said in an interview in his Capitol Hill office, where he was joined by his wife, Patricia.
McKeon, who endorsed former state Sen. Tony Strickland as his replacement, will become the third California congressman to head for the exits when his term expires, further shaking up a delegation that has built up influence on Capitol Hill because of its stability over the years. Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez), dean of the delegation, announced this week that he would not seek reelection, ending a 40-year career in a chamber where seniority still matters.
Last year, 14 California freshmen took office, changing the face of the state's 53-member House delegation, after the defeat or retirement of a number of veterans, including two committee chairmen.
Just a few years ago, Californians chaired six House committees, more than any other state. Today they chair three, while lawmakers from longtime rival Texas hold the most gavels — five. However, Rep. Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield serves as majority whip, the No. 3 Republican post in the House.
Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Corona), who recently gained an appropriations subcommittee chairmanship, said the state would still enjoy considerable influence. "We're still the largest state in the union," he noted.
Republicans hold an edge in registered voters in McKeon's district, with 39% to Democrats' 35%. Republican Mitt Romney narrowly defeated President Obama in the district in the 2012 election despite the Democratic win statewide.
In addition to Strickland, state Sen. Stephen Knight (R-Palmdale) has said he planned to run if McKeon retired. Several Democrats — including Lee Rogers, a podiatrist who ran against McKeon in 2012, and Evan Thomas, a retired Air Force officer and test pilot — also have signaled their interest in running.
McKeon said that besides the pending loss of his leadership position, there were other factors in his decision, including "naysayers" within the Republican ranks who have frustrated House GOP leadership.
He will formally announce his retirement decision in the Armed Services Committee hearing room.
"I never planned on being here until they carried me out," he said. He said an aide advised, "Leave when they're clapping for you."
McKeon, who has six children and 31 grandchildren, was Santa Clarita's first mayor and a former co-owner of a chain of western wear stores before he was elected to the House in 1992. He served a stint as chairman of the Committee on Education and the Workforce.
McKeon's district is a hub of aerospace activity. At Air Force Plant 42 in Palmdale, the nation's largest defense contractors work in secrecy, designing and building the latest military aircraft. His top campaign contributors are defense firms; the industry poured in nearly $567,000 during the 2012 campaign, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics, a watchdog group.
He successfully fought an attempt by the Air Force last year to save money by halting work on a high-flying, long-endurance drone built in Palmdale by defense giant Northrop Grumman Corp.
While a dependable conservative voice in Congress, McKeon has also worked with Democrats; he teamed up with the state's liberal Sen. Barbara Boxer in 2009 on legislation to designate thousands of acres in the Eastern Sierra and San Gabriel Mountains as wilderness.
Rep. John Campbell (R-Irvine), 58, also has announced plans to retire when his term ends.