Rep. Steve Israel's (D-N.Y.) sudden decision to retire after 16 years in Congress is the latest blow to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and the health of Democratic leadership in Congress. It suggests the trouble she's having convincing Democratic leaders that their future is in the House of Representatives.
In his exit interviews, Israel, age 57, makes no effort to hide his disdain for the job.
“I don’t think I can spend another day in another call room making another call begging for money,” he told the New York Times' Carl Hulse. “I always knew the system was dysfunctional. Now it is beyond broken.”
This is an especially notable vote of no-confidence coming from the man who, when he ran House Democrats' campaign arm, cracked the whip on fundraising. In 2013, he gave a Power Point to new lawmakers that included this slide emphasizing the importance of begging for money:
The bad news for Pelosi is that Israel's impending departure accounts for just the latest member of her inner circle to choose a path other than hers.
Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), age 56, is forgoing his seat and future leadership potential to run for the open Senate seat in his state. In 2008, then-Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) left a leadership position under Pelosi to become President Obama's chief of staff. All three men — Israel, Van Hollen and Emanuel — were successive chairs of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, a prestigious job engineering House Democrats' campaign strategy that often leads to future leadership posts. Van Hollen and Emanuel, in particular, were viewed as potential future House speakers.
Instead of having a stacked bench of next-generation leaders, Israel's and Van Hollen's departures leave what could best be described as the old guard of House Democratic leadership at the top. House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and Rep Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) remain in the top spots with Pelosi, making up a trio of 70-somethings, notes The Post's Paul Kane.
"Pelosi has no obvious natural ally to run for one of the top two positions in leadership," Kane wrote.
But Israel, in a call to The Fix, said he thinks Democrats have "a pretty robust bench." He said when he was chair of the DCCC, he put together programs to support and encourage young candidates and lawmakers.
"There's a lot of people who know they have a lot of opportunities here," he said, framing his retirement as a positive for Democratic leadership. "My departure is going to open up opportunities for other members; it's just that simple."
And Pelosi's office points out that three other members of relative young age are higher in leadership than Israel and Van Hollen and aren't stepping down: Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.), age 57, Rep. Joe Crowley (D-N.Y.), age 53, and Rep. Ben Ray Lujan (D-NM), age 43.
Still, it's not hard to see why some younger lawmakers want to jet. We talked a lot on The Fix this winter about how the House is broken. Our current divided, outsider-driven political system is encouraging lawmakers to take more hard-line stances. More polarized districts back home and influential outsiders groups are cheering them on instead of punishing them.
Those dynamics tend to play out on the Republican side more than the Democratic side, but there are plenty of reasons for low morale among potential Democratic leaders, too.
First and foremost, there's the fact that it will be very tough for Democrats to take back the House this decade — if not this generation — by virtue of the GOP's natural advantage on the House map and its overwhelming control of drawing new districts after the 2010 election.
Second, Democratic leadership hasn't cycled in a long time. Pelosi and Hoyer have been Nos. 1 and 2 since 2003, meaning it's been more than a decade since ambitious lawmakers could really work their way up the ladder. Expect the departures of Israel and Van Hollen to increase the chatter about whether it's time to pass things to the next generation of Democratic leaders — before they completely lose patience.
And finally, there's the intransigence. House Democrats also had to watch this fall as the chamber ground to a screeching halt over GOP leadership drama. Eventually, House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) decided that stepping down was the only solution — not a particularly inspiring example for those on both sides of the aisle climbing the leadership ranks.
After Rep. Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) reluctantly took over as speaker, Democrats resumed their usual, often-thankless role in the House of saving the day on must-pass bills. More Democrats than Republicans (166 Democrats to 150 Republicans) voted for the 1,500-plus-page spending bill that Congress passed in December. It was filled with goodies and wins for both sides, but also plenty that will be tough for those 166 Democrats to defend — most especially, the lifting of a decades-old crude oil ban.
Pelosi tried to broadcast that this would be one of the last times her Democrats would come to the Republican leadership's rescue. But if Ryan continues to struggle with the more than 70 to 100 lawmakers in his party who consistently vote against leadership and with hard-line conservatives — and we think he will — it's tough to see Democrats just sitting on the sidelines while a shutdown looms.
Add all that up and it's clear why the House — and specifically Democratic leadership there — is a place where lawmakers feel that their ambitions get stifled.
Unfortunately for Pelosi, that reality is also a vicious cycle. After all, fleeing talent is not the best recruiting pitch.