The uprising inside the House Democratic caucus is about much more than last week’s election results.
Yes, Nancy Pelosi poorly managed expectations. At one point, she said that her party could pick up the 30 seats necessary to win the House majority. Even during the home stretch, she mulled a gain of more than 20 seats. She wound up getting only six.
But the blow-up that caused the postponement of leadership elections from this Thursday to Nov. 30 – a decision made at the end of a tumultuous, two-hour meeting – is really about young lawmakers who are frustrated by a seniority system that limits their influence, African-Americans who don’t feel like they have enough sway over Pelosi’s strategy and members from the heartland who feel that the dominance of coastal elites in the caucus has made it harder for them to connect with their constituents.
— For years now, there has been a problematic lack of upward mobility for younger Democrats. Consider:
The top three Democrats in leadership are 76 (Pelosi), 77 (Steny Hoyer) and 76 (Jim Clyburn). The top three Republican leaders, in contrast, are 46 (Paul Ryan), 51 (Kevin McCarthy) and 51 (Steve Scalise). Pelosi and Hoyer have together led the House Democrats for 14 years now. Ryan, of course, replaced John Boehner just last year after an open election process. (And while rank-and-file Republicans get to vote on who will chair the NRCC, Pelosi picks the leader of the DCCC.)
House Democrats do not have term limits for their committee chairs, as Republicans do. The average age of the Democratic ranking members on the 22 House committees this Congress is 68. The average age of the Republican chairmen is 60. On only four of the 22 committees is the top Republican older than the top Democrat.
The seniority rules mean that the most important committees are led by the oldest members. The ranking Democrat on the Judiciary, John Conyers, is 87. Ways and Means ranking member Sander Levin is 85. Nita Lowey, ranking on Appropriations, is 79. Maxine Waters, ranking on Financial Services, is 78. For context, the Republicans who lead those crucial committees are 78, 64, 61 and 59.
— There is palpable concern among Democratic elites around town that too many of these ranking members in the House are not pit bull types who can effectively argue for Democratic principles on television and during floor debates. It’s a refrain you hear constantly: Do Democrats really want the 85-year-old Levin running point against the GOP’s drive to repeal Obamacare and negotiating what could be the most significant rewrite of the tax code in a generation? Do they want the 87-year-old Conyers being the tip of the spear against a Trump Justice Department and all the scandals that could potentially bring?
“There is broad angst in the Democratic caucus,” said Rep. Richard Neal, D-Mass., speaking of no one in particular. “To stick with the same message over four bad election cycles is a mistake. I think part of it is that the messengers have to change.”
— This is a stark contrast to the Senate, where Democrats have several proven fighters who are ready to rumble with the Trump administration. Pelosi’s team will complain that the aforementioned sentiment is ageist, but it’s really about more than age. It’s about temperament and drive. Bernie Sanders is 75 and Elizabeth Warren is 67, but no one doubts their willingness or ability to go toe-to-toe with the right.
— Junior House Democrats – chock full of potential and ambition – grumble constantly about how suffocated they feel. The reality, which no wants to grouse about publicly, is that toiling away on the back bench in the minority party is a pretty horrible existence. You think you’re important when you get elected, but then once you arrive it turns out you’re almost totally irrelevant. Only people in your home district actually care about you, and even there your name ID is probably embarrassingly low.
Unlike the Senate, the lower chamber is a purely majoritarian institution. There is no filibuster. There are no earmarks. Unless you’re a crazy firebrand, or have an especially impressive resume (e.g. you’re a war hero), your press secretary probably cannot even get you booked on the three major cable news channels. You get fewer staffers than you assume when you arrive, and many of your employees are basically fresh out of college. They don’t really know anything about legislating, but it doesn’t really matter because leadership calls all the shots.
The young members who do get lavished with attention are the ones in competitive districts that make them vulnerable. But those are the members who have to spend almost all of their time dialing for dollars, begging rich people they don’t know for money from a windowless call center. You may wear the member’s pin proudly, but really it is a life of indignity after indignity.
— The young generation of Democrats does not want to wait for God knows how long to be heard. Two whippersnappers illustrate this tension perfectly: Ruben Gallego, 36, is from Phoenix and Seth Moulton, 38, is from Boston. Both graduated from Harvard. Both saw combat as Marine infantrymen in Iraq. Both won a second term last week. Both envision themselves doing much bigger things. And both agitated publicly to delay the leadership elections.
“We don’t want to rush to a leadership vote for them to think everything is business as usual,” said Gallego. “Everything is not good. Business as usual is not going to work.”
“Delaying the vote on leadership positions is the necessary first step to have that conversation,” said Moulton, who defeated Democratic incumbent John Tierney in a 2014 primary. “The American people cried out last week, and we’ve got to listen.”
On Monday night, to prepare for the contentious caucus meeting, Moulton convened a strategy dinner of about 20 fellow insurgents at Acqua Al 2, the fancy Italian restaurant in Eastern Market. He declined Tuesday to say whether he will back Pelosi.
— Nancy Pelosi is both beloved and feared by her members. Even many of the young bucks who want to rise through the ranks faster recognize what an incredibly shrewd deal-maker she is. She’s often out-foxed Republican leaders and has capitalized on the unruly and undisciplined House Freedom to extract big concessions at key moments. She’s typecast as a limousine liberal, but the much better way to understand Pelosi is that her dad was the mayor of Baltimore. She learned machine politics in a big city.
Pelosi knows how to keep her caucus in line, or at least the majority, and that’s why she remains VERY HEAVILY FAVORED to stay on as minority leader – even with the postponed election. A smaller Democratic caucus even works to her advantage in some ways. With all but a handful of Blue Dogs gone, she’s got California locked up. The female members adore her (More than 40 of the 54 have signed a letter offering support). And the bleeding-heart liberals, who dominate the Democratic caucus to a greater degree than at any point in U.S. history, see her as a fellow traveler. She’s also one of the best fundraisers in political history.
— Tim Ryan is the likeliest challenger to Pelosi, but even he may still decide not to go through with it. He told The Washington Post’s Paul Kane during an interview this morning that he has not made a final decision. “This is not fun anymore. This is not fun to wallow in the minority,” he said about the morale of rank-and-file Democrats. Asked about the party’s standing, he deadpanned: “You can’t fall off the floor.”
The Ohioan must consider what happened to Heath Shuler, a moderate from North Carolina, when he challenged Pelosi in 2010 after the party lost 63 seats: She crushed him like a bug, 150-43, and he subsequently left Congress.
Some of the rambunctious youngsters are playing more of the inside game, recognizing the clear risks of crossing Pelosi. Joe Kennedy III, who like Moulton is a member of the Massachusetts delegation in his 30s, expressed support Tuesday for retaining her as minority leader. Not only is he a member of the Kennedy clan, which guarantees a national profile, but he is considered the favorite to succeed Warren whenever his former Harvard law school professor decides to give up her Senate seat. (Moulton, if his bid to shake up the House fails, might feel compelled to, hypothetically, run against someone like Ed Markey in a primary.)
— The key issue going forward now is whether the Pelosi dissidents stay unified or they break up into competing factions. As the trite but true Will Rogers aphorism goes, “I’m not a member of any organized party. I’m a Democrat.” Some people just want to force the old guys at the top of the committee dais to be more politically and legislative active, which is altogether different than those who want to oust the top leaders.
— The Congressional Black Caucus privately would like to depose Pelosi, if she could be taken out.But, but, but: The CBC is also the leading opponent to creating term limits for committee chairs and steadfastly opposes other reforms that the younger, mostly white, members want. It was a CBC member, 72-year-old Emanuel Cleaver, who formally made the motion to postpone the leadership elections. “We just got a shellacking last Tuesday,” CBC chairman G.K. Butterfield said after the meeting. “We got an unexpected defeat and we’ve got to recalibrate and decide how we go forward.” (For what it’s worth, Cleaver and Butterfield claimed that this was not the first step in a coup d’etat.)
— Another flashpoint: Coastal elites really have a vice grip on the House Democratic caucus. In the current Congress, 121 of the 186 Democrats come from states on the Left Coast or the Eastern seaboard. That’s two thirds, and the number will actually tick higher next year. Even more starkly, more than one-third of House Democrats hail from just three states: California (39), New York (18) and Massachusetts (9).
— Meanwhile, Democrats have gotten totally throttled in the Rust Belt: Pennsylvania’s delegation has 13 Republicans and five Democrats. Ohio’s delegation has 13 Republicans and five Democrats. Michigan has nine Republicans and five Democrats. Wisconsin has five Republicans and three Democrats. The fact that the GOP won big in the 2010 midterms and then controlled the redistricting process is a very important factor here, but it’s a red herring to pretend that it is the only one. Democrats will never control the House again until they figure out how to flip those numbers. That’s partly what animates Ryan’s potential challenge.
— To be sure, Republicans have their own problems. Namely diversity. Seven of the top eight House Republican leaders are men. Just one is a woman. In fact, there are only 21 Republican women in the House. . .
With Breanne Deppisch