Politics & Policy

House Democrats Debate Term Limits for Committee Heads

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill, March 2, 2017. (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)
No surprise: They’ll probably scrap the current term-limit rule, followed by the GOP, and restore the seniority system.

For House Democratic leaders these are the best of times and the most awkward of times.

They’ve won control of the House after eight years in the minority. But they also have the biggest freshman class since Watergate, and it includes many who ran on “reform” platforms to clean up the House. But that’s the last thing Congress’s old reactionary bulls want.

One of the changes that reformers have in mind is term limits. For a quarter century, Republicans have followed a rule when they were in the majority that committee chairmen and -women could serve only six years before surrendering their gavel. Democrats will either have to keep the existing GOP rule, modify it, or scrap it.

The argument for term limits has been that it allows for the circulation of new talent, limits the power of the seniority system, and avoids creating autocratic “chair monsters” who abuse their power.

Incoming speaker Nancy Pelosi is well aware of term limits. State legislators and all statewide assembly members in her home state of California are bound by term limits. Back in 2007, when she first became speaker, she leaned toward retaining the GOP rule on term limits. But, as she noted to reporters last week, “the caucus did not support that.”

This month, she has been meeting with restless members of her caucus — she needs them to vote for her as speaker on January 3. About 20 Democrats have announced they will oppose her candidacy, and she can afford to lose only 17 Democrats if she is to reach a majority of the House. Showing support for term limits for committee chairs is one way for her to nail down the votes she needs.

Last week, Pelosi held two conference calls with her Democratic leadership and told them that term limits were being pushed by junior Democrats who wanted to shake up the system. She told reporters later in the week that she was “sympathetic” to the idea of term limits but that the caucus would have the final say. Term limits might appeal to the 78-year-old Pelosi because not having ambitious members wait decades to chair committees could reduce pressure on her to step aside soon.

But her mild noises of approval were all that was needed to arouse the ire of the most hidebound parts of the new Democratic majority. Incoming majority leader Steny Hoyer expressed his opposition, as did Jerry Nadler of New York, the new Judiciary Committee chairman, and several other incoming chairmen.

The Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC) are convinced that the seniority system should be a bedrock feature of the Democratic House. The theory is that it has allowed minority members to overcome “white privilege” and secure top-ranking spots.

Some female CBC members are also convinced that their members were snubbed last month when Barbara Lee of California and Terri Sewell of Alabama both lost their races for House leadership to male challengers. A former CBC staff member told me that some female members are convinced that, absent the seniority system, neither Maxine Waters of California nor Eddie Bernice Johnson of Texas would be taking over influential committees: Waters is set to take over the Financial Services Committee, and Johnson will helm the Science, Space, and Technology Committee .

“Why would I subject Eddie Bernice Johnson or Maxine Waters to a vote of a caucus that has never elected an African-American woman?” Representative Cedric Richmond of Louisiana, the outgoing chair of the CBC, asked a reporter for The Hill.

Richmond told The Hill that he thinks the would-be reformers were so strong against the highly liberal Pelosi on the campaign trail that they are now flailing about, looking for an excuse to support her. “Just say you had a change of heart, but don’t go trying to find hollow victories, or create other chaos, so that you can justify it,” Richmond said of the Pelosi critics. Yet even as he confidently predicted that the caucus would once again shoot down term limits, he acknowledged that some of his younger or newer CBC members support the idea.

That’s in part because term limits are overwhelmingly popular with the American people — including African Americans and Hispanics. A January 2018 poll by McLaughlin Associates found that 82 percent of Americans favor congressional term limits. Among African Americans, the majority was an overwhelming 70 percent, and among Hispanics it was 72 percent.

Artur Davis, who represented part of Alabama in the House from 2003 to 2011 and made one of the nominating speeches for Barack Obama at the 2008 Democratic convention, is disappointed that term limits are opposed by the Congressional Black Caucus, of which he was once a member.

Davis told me in an interview:

The only way for a party caucus to retain its most talented members is to open regular doors for advancement, and that includes chair opportunities. There is a special irony here. The new CBC members about to be sworn in are the best collection of black political talent that has entered the House at one time. These new members will leave to run statewide if they don’t see a wide enough path of upward mobility in the House.

Democrats retook the House in part because voters are angry at President Trump. But they also won independent voters by promising to reform the dysfunctional Congress and make it work on behalf of the American people.

Now it appears that any thought of term limits and other bold reforms will be sunk by a Mossback Coalition of aging whites and longtime members of the CBC and the CHC who want to hold on to the rewards they reap from the seniority spoils system.

Once voters begin to catch on that the new Democratic bosses of the House are much like the worst of the old GOP bosses — to the extent that they spurn change and cling to power at all costs — they may reconsider what they did last November.

If Democrats focus on impeaching President Trump while keeping reactionary supporters of the status quo in power, they might find that their new House majority won’t last very long. Their last stint in power was four years long. It could be even shorter this time.

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