After another political drubbing in 2014 left them at their lowest point in 65 years, some House Democrats called for radical internal reforms to buck the seniority system and impose term limits on top committee posts, trying to instill new energy in their caucus.
Instead, after an intensive 10-month review, the task force that studied the issue has come up with a novel recommendation: Channel that energy into trying to defeat Republicans instead of turning on one another in what would be a brutal fight based along racial and generational lines.
“I would rather focus our time on getting the majority back. To me, that seems the most appropriate thing to do. The way to get more opportunities is to get the majority, not to go after each other,” Rep. Karen Bass (Calif.), who led the review process, said in an interview with The Washington Post previewing her report.
Bass, a third-term lawmaker who has never served in the majority, oversaw the 12-member team that reviewed the caucus’s rules and considered what, if any, changes to recommend.
What they discovered was a set of Democrats deeply depressed after losing 13 more seats in the 2014 elections, a third straight trip to the polls that left them in the minority and with no clear hope for winning back the majority anytime soon.
Like Bass, about 40 percent of the 188 House Democrats took office within the past five years and have never experienced life in the majority. It was this clutch of lawmakers that began to question why committees’ ranking Democratic members seemed so rooted in place, with no sign of turnover.
Conversely, senior Democrats turned on the newcomers, furious that they were trying to toss out the more experienced elders. Particularly angry were members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), who view the seniority system as key to power, given that many come from lower-income districts and cannot play the fundraising angles of some colleagues.
“We were down, absolutely, because of the election, and then in January my big fear was that we were going to go after each other,” Bass said.
The division is perfectly illustrated in the differing views of Reps. Eric Swalwell (Calif.) and G.K. Butterfield (N.C.). Swalwell, 34 and in his second term, had been among the younger crop pushing for change. He was happy to learn from Bass’s review that Democratic rules do not always guarantee that seniority dictates appointments. “That was in many ways a perception. I think we should clarify that. I think we could make that clearer,” he said.
Butterfield, 68, chairman of the CBC, pointed to the seven top spots for black Democrats on committees overseeing a range of subjects, from Wall Street to education to veterans’ issues. “The CBC is emphatically opposed to any type of term limits, and we believe in the seniority system,” Butterfield said.
The fights erupted after November’s contested race for ranking Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, a powerful panel with oversight of matters including telecommunications and health care. Reps. Frank Pallone Jr. (N.J.) and Anna G. Eshoo (Calif.) squared off in a harsh contest that saw one lawmaker denied a vote because she was away giving birth.
Pallone, who had more seniority, won a narrow victory largely because of overwhelming support from the CBC, despite House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) backing her friend Eshoo.
Afterward, Eshoo wrote Bass’s task force, asking for consideration of a more merit-based rule for picking heads of committees while limiting their terms, similar to the way House Republicans choose their committee chairs.
Given the Pelosi-Eshoo friendship, some saw the minority leader’s hand in the effort, but Pelosi stayed out of Bass’s way and never took a public position on the issue.
The 12-member task force held two meetings in which term limits were discussed. Rep. David Scott (Ga.), a 13-year veteran of the CBC, delivered a powerful defense of seniority and unlimited terms atop those committees, suggesting that it would be offensive to black lawmakers to change the rules, according to those present.
In an interview, Scott said that it is “certainly not in the best interests” of the CBC to see the rules changed. “We’ve got to wake up and realize we’ve got to go to work and build from within,” he said, rather than turning “the firing circle in and shooting the people who have paid the dues.”
To Bass’s surprise, not a single supporter of the effort to infuse new blood at the top of the committees appeared. “Not one person showed up that supported term limits, but everybody there showed up that didn’t want term limits,” she said, prompting her to hunt down the younger Democrats who had expressed support in news reports for blowing up the current system.
She discovered that many of the junior Democrats did not know the rules and that the 40-page document itself was incredibly outdated.
“I didn’t sit down and read the Democratic caucus rules book cover to cover,” said Rep. Joe Kennedy (Mass.), a second-term lawmaker who has emerged as a leader of the 30-something Democrats.
Bass showed many lawmakers the part about seniority — “such nominations need not necessarily follow seniority” — and they were surprised.
Rep. Brian Higgins (N.Y.) took up the painstaking task of updating the rule book to clean up repetition and mistakes. The Judiciary Committee, for instance, somehow was not listed as one of the committees in the official caucus rules.
The biggest concern Bass heard was despair from junior Democrats wondering what to do in the minority with no chance to lead a committee anytime soon. “Some people perceive the only thing they can do is take their seat at the kids’ table, as it was called, and wait their turn,” she said, explaining how she encouraged Democrats to follow her lead in starting a caucus to deal with foster-care issues.
“Give yourself a title. You can create a caucus, and the caucus can actually do something, if you want it to,” she said.
Swalwell, Kennedy and other young Democrats have started the Future Forum, a group that travels to technology sectors and tries to connect with younger voters.
For now, the younger Democrats are accepting no real rules changes and focusing on finding their niche. Kennedy, whose great-uncle, Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), spent 30 years as a chairman or ranking Democrat on Senate committees, said he has to remind himself that “change comes slowly.”
“It means that you’ve got to be willing to roll up your sleeves and dig into it,” Kennedy said. “I think my uncle was a pretty effective legislator. He waited for 50 years to get universal health care. I can wait for three.”