In a few weeks, I will celebrate my 67th birthday. I like to think that after 35 years as a business and economics journalist, I still have some knowledge, experience and wisdom to offer to the readers of The Washington Post. But I also know that I’ve lost a step or two and am no longer keeping up with my younger newsroom colleagues. It also would not occur to me or, more important, to anyone in The Post’s marketing department to think of me as the “face” of the newspaper’s brand.
I thought of this on Wednesday as I perused the list of Democrats who will be running the U.S. House of Representatives when the new Congress arrives in January.
Three top leaders, Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), Steny H. Hoyer (Md.) and James E. Clyburn (S.C.), are either 78 or 79. And then there are the ranking committee members who, under the Democrats’ strict seniority regime, will take over as chairs. The youngest, Ted Deutch (Fla.), is 52. The oldest, Nita M. Lowey (N.Y.) at Appropriations, is 81. The average age is 74. In terms of their grasp of the policy details, their communications and leadership skills and their ability to relate to the average voter, it’s fair to say that — with a few notable exceptions — most have lost a step or two. Nor, in this anti-establishment era, would it occur to anyone with political or marketing sense to put them forward as the “face” of the Democratic brand.
And yet they are determined to hang on and do just that. After years of waiting their turn, biding their time and enduring the indignities heaped on them over the past six years by a disrespectful and nasty Republican majority, they are determined to exact their revenge, reward their allies and finish enacting the agenda they envisioned 30 years ago when they first arrived at the Capitol. They tell themselves there is no need to change personnel or policies, because the political momentum is with them: this year, the House; in two years, the Senate and the White House; and then Democrats will once again be able to run the table, just as they did back in 2009-2010.
The first task of the incoming class of Democratic House members is to disabuse the leaders of their cloakroom fantasy. When they are summoned to a caucus in a few weeks to select leadership candidates for the new Congress, the newbies should stick together and refuse to participate. When they are encouraged to begin jockeying for plum committee assignments or help in retiring campaign debts, they need to stick together and refuse to be co-opted. Their first task must be to rip out the Capitol’s old and decayed political plumbing — the seniority system, the three-day workweeks, the leadership-driven agenda, the hyper-partisanship and the incessant fundraising — and replace it with something fresh and modern that works for them and for a deeply divided country.
What would a new political plumbing look like?
The best single idea comes from the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, which proposed that the speaker of the House be elected by no less than 60 percent of the membership, virtually ensuring that future speakers would need support from Democratic and Republican members. This would be a speaker of the whole House, leaving the majority leader to be the party’s leader in the chamber. Unfortunately, it was such a good idea, and drew so much pushback from the leadership of both parties, that Problem Solvers themselves eventually abandoned it.
My variation on this idea would also give the speaker the power to appoint all members of the Rules Committee, which determines what bills come before the House, how long they are debated and what amendments can be offered. Only in that way would the legislative process be freed from the stranglehold now exerted by party leaders and, through them, partisan extremists.
The second area where the plumbing needs fixing is seniority. One of the few constructive things that Newt Gingrich did when he became speaker in 1995 was to set a three-term limit for Republican committee chairmen. Democrats should do the same, and extend the limit to party leadership positions. The geriatric lineup that Democrats bring to the task of governing and the absence of a credible bench demonstrate what happens when a caucus does not regularly rejuvenate itself with fresh young talent.
Of course, to insist on that puts the Democratic freshmen in an awkward spot. So they ought to agree to allow the current leadership and committee chairs to take their places in January, on the condition that new rules will be adopted, and new elections will take place, at the end of the year. That way, the party can present a fresh slate to voters in time for the 2020 elections.
This is not to say Pelosi & Co. did a bad job — they didn’t — or even that they need to be shown the door. Rather, they should be shown the respect they deserve and asked to hang around for a few more years and share their wisdom and experience. A new Speaker would be smart to find other important assignments for them, including spots on the Rules Committee.
Before his death in August, John McCain urged his congressional colleagues to return to “regular order,” by which he meant relying on committees to set the legislative agenda and craft policy compromises. As my Post colleague Paul Kane and ProPublica’s Derek Willis wrote this week, the committee process has been allowed to wither away as power has migrated to party leaders who prefer to hammer out legislation with lobbyists behind closed doors and then pressure colleagues to pass it on the floor with no opportunity for meaningful debate or amendment. A number of small changes in House rules could help restore the power of committee chairmen to bring bills to the floor and committee members to select the committee chairmen shaping bills in committee.
Finally, the new Democrats in Congress need to insist that their job as legislators be full time. The current congressional schedule is a joke — a bad joke — that has members spending most of their waking hours focused on ensuring their own reelection by raising campaign cash and showing up at every bean supper in their districts. Democrats could demonstrate their seriousness about governing by announcing that the workweek would begin at noon Monday with a quorum call and run until noon Friday, with recesses scheduled only on four holiday weeks and whatever is left of the summer once the next year’s budget has been enacted. Members should be given a generous housing allowance to make it possible financially for them and their families to live in Washington, with restrictions on how much taxpayer or political money they can spend commuting to and from their districts.
The idea that members of Congress ought to sleep in their offices to avoid being tainted by the swampy Washington culture was more than just a Republican canard — it was a political cancer that metastasized into legislative dysfunction. The only way Americans will start taking Congress seriously is for members to start taking their jobs more seriously. Moving themselves and their families to Washington is a necessary first step.
With an even larger Republican majority in the Senate and Donald Trump in the White House, there’s not much chance for Democrats to actually enact legislation over the next two years. There is, however, a golden opportunity to refresh their brand and restore the political plumbing to working order. Only then will our democracy be able to reach a consensus on taxes, deficits, immigration, infrastructure, health care, climate change and the economic prospects of people and regions that have been left behind.
Pearlstein is a Post business and economics columnist. He is also Robinson Professor of Public Affairs at George Mason University. His book, “Can American Capitalism Survive?” was published this fall by St. Martin’s Press.