Democrats’ reliance on seniority clashes with enthusiasm for fresh faces

Why We Wrote This

As Democratic voters skew younger, that image seems increasingly at odds with the party’s long-entrenched leadership on Capitol Hill. But many say now is a time when experienced hands are more important than ever. 

Mike Theiler/Reuters
House minority leader Nancy Pelosi of California makes remarks a day after the midterm elections on Capitol Hill in Washington. Democrats regained control of that chamber – setting up a possible return to the speakership for Ms. Pelosi.

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On the Republican side, House members can advance quickly in committees because their chairmanships are subject to term limits. It’s what helped Paul Ryan grab the Budget Committee gavel when he was in his mid-40s and then become the youngest House speaker in more than a century. In contrast, Democrats rely on seniority – and Americans are about to see some senior Democrats take over, including octogenarians Maxine Waters of California, expected to become the next chairperson of the Finance Committee, and Nita Lowey of New York, expected to head the powerful Appropriations Committee. Yet a growing chorus of Democratic voices are calling for fresh leadership even as the caucus looks set to elect the same trio of septuagenarian leaders, including Nancy Pelosi in the top position, when they return from Thanksgiving recess. The challenge is that the upper rungs of the ladder have been filled for so long that no one comes close to matching Ms. Pelosi’s experience. “I’d like to see more younger, newer members at the table,” says Rep. Eric Swalwell (D) of California. “But as I see it, right now, we’re in the ninth inning, it’s a tight game, we want our best in there.”

Rep. Diana DeGette, Democrat from Colorado, is done with waiting.

For “probably” 12 years, she says, she’s aspired to one of the top three jobs in the Democratic leadership. But these positions have been occupied by the same three people – all of them now in their late 70s – for more than a decade.

Now that Democrats have won the majority in the House, Congresswoman DeGette is making her move – challenging a powerful member of the troika for the No. 3 slot, the “whip,” or chief vote counter. DeGette has been on her party’s whip team since she arrived in Congress more than 20 years ago, and before that when she was in the Colorado legislature.

“What I love to do is whip,” she tells a clutch of reporters, describing the satisfaction of building coalitions and rounding up members to get bills passed. “I’ve been known to whip a dinner party!”

DeGette reflects an eagerness for change and opportunity among Democrats, even as the caucus looks set to elect the same trio of septuagenarians to the top three positions when they return from their Thanksgiving recess: Nancy Pelosi of California, Steny Hoyer of Maryland, and James Clyburn of South Carolina. The desire for fresh leadership is most vocally expressed by a faction seeking to block minority leader Pelosi from becoming speaker. Their motivations vary, from fulfilling campaign promises not to back the vilified Californian to complaints about how the caucus and the House are run.

Cliff Owen/AP/File
Rep. Diana DeGette ( D) of Colorado, ask a question during an oversight and investigations subcommittee hearing on Capitol Hill on Oct. 8, 2015. The 11-term congresswoman would like to be majority whip in the 116th US Congress. Her challenge reflects a desire among some Democrats for changes in leadership.

But underneath it all is the matter of generational change. Even the pro-Pelosi camp recognizes that the public face of the party doesn’t match that of young voters who turned out in numbers not seen for at least 25 years in a midterm election. And Ms. Pelosi herself is promising to be a “transitional” speaker to a new generation of Democratic leaders – though she hasn’t specified a time frame.

“If a voter looks at the Republican party and says, ‘Those leaders are my parents’ age,’ and they look at the Democratic party and they say, ‘Those leaders are my grandparents’ age,’ that’s not the best image to present to younger voters,” says Matthew Green, an expert on the speakership at Catholic University in Washington.

Other Democrats are qualified for the job of speaker, Professor Green says. But the top rungs of the ladder have been filled for so long, including Pelosi as leader for 16 years, that no one comes close to matching Pelosi’s experience – her legislative chops, her previous role as speaker under Presidents Obama and Bush, and her time negotiating with President Trump.   

To date, no one has declared an intention to run against her.

“I’d like to see more younger, newer members at the table,” says Rep. Eric Swalwell of California, who is the youngest member of the broader leadership team. “But as I see it, right now, we’re in the ninth inning, it’s a tight game – we want our best in there.” 

Ask Pelosi about preparing the next generation to assume positions of authority, and she says she’s always done that, and that Democrats have a “whole new brigade” who will make their mark in committees and elsewhere. She points to her record of appointing women, people of color, LGBTQ people.

“Nobody mentions the fact that right away I made Eric Swalwell, in his thirties, in the top leadership as co-chair of the Steering and Policy Committee” – a powerful panel that sets the policy agenda and nominates members to committees. “I’m proud of my record in that regard. I know how to do it, and now that we have the majority and we have more capacity, we can do more,” she says, hustling along a corridor, a trail of reporters following her.

Two years ago, when Pelosi faced an uprising in her ranks and 63 members backed Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio for minority leader instead of her, she created a slew of new leadership positions, reserving some for younger members. Those jobs have given visibility and some influence to rising stars like Hakeem Jeffries of New York, and Cheri Bustos of Illinois. Both are using their positions as a springboard to launch campaigns for other top jobs in the Nov. 28 Democratic caucus elections.

But Rep. Marcia Fudge of Ohio, who is in the “Never Nancy” camp and is herself considering challenging Pelosi for speaker, scoffs at those efforts to give leadership experience to fresh talent. 

“You don’t do it by just creating more and more and more positions that really have no real authority. I think what you have to do is give young people authority,” Congresswoman Fudge, a former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, told reporters earlier this week. “We have a lot of very bright young people in this caucus, and everybody knows it. But it’s very difficult to move up in an environment where the same people run everything all the time.” 

In the Republican House caucus, newer members have a chance to advance in committees because the chairmanships are subject to term limits. It’s what helped outgoing Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin grab the Budget Committee gavel when he was in his mid-40s, and then go on to become the youngest House speaker since 1869.

In contrast, Democrats rely on seniority – and Americans are about to see some senior Democrats take over, including octogenarians Maxine Waters of California, expected to become the next chairperson of the Finance Committee, and Nita Lowey of New York, expected to head the powerful Appropriations Committee.

The seniority system has been vigorously defended by the Congressional Black Caucus, and observers say it would be very tough to change. But some members say the party needs to find a “sweet spot” between term limits and seniority.

Outgoing Democrat Michelle Lujan Grisham – soon to be sworn in as New Mexico’s next governor – says she has seen the advantages and disadvantages of both: seniority provides experience, but blocks the funnel to leadership; term limits provide opportunity, but can result in a deficit of experience. This year, term limits tangibly hurt Republicans by creating an incentive for lawmakers whose committee chairmanships were expiring to retire. 

“Somewhere [in between] is a happy medium,” says Congresswoman Lujan Grisham.

Meanwhile, Pelosi is trying to fend off a potential challenge, meeting with various caucuses, hosting the newcomers and their spouses at a private dinner in the Capitol’s Statuary Hall, and asking Democratic luminaries to call members-elect on her behalf (she is meeting privately with them as well).

Her opponents say they have 17 signatures on a letter opposing her, and even more commitments beyond that – enough, they say, to deny her the 218 votes she will need for the speakership when the entire House votes on Jan. 3. Some reportedly have indicated it would help if they knew how long she planned to hold the speakership (only until the next election?) and what exactly her transition plan is. 

One complicating factor: Democrats in the bipartisan Problem Solvers caucus who are demanding rules changes to foster bipartisanship in exchange for their support. Pelosi and the Problem Solvers met and seem to be moving in the same direction, with the group waiting for a written response from her. The Republican co-chair of the group, Rep. Tom Reed of New York, has said he and some other Republicans will cast votes for Pelosi for speaker if she meets the Problem Solvers’ demands.

Never flinching, Pelosi, at least publicly, exudes supreme confidence that she will indeed be the next speaker. Part of her strategy seems to be to give the naysayers every opportunity to publicly voice their opposition. Former House historian Ray Smock says that could include going into rounds of extra balloting on the floor – not unprecedented – if need be.

“Some of this is about giving people the space to make a U-turn,” says a senior Democratic aide.

And while the internal division may trouble some Democrats, others view it as healthy – for the party and the House.

“The positive side of this tussle over leadership is that we’re on the verge of seeing fundamental reform in rules that will open up the process,” says former Democratic Rep. Steve Israel of New York, who retired from Democratic leadership to pursue a career as a writer.

“Is it about Nancy Pelosi? For some it is. But for others, it’s about whoever leads the House and will open the process.” 

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