House Democrats' newest arrivals know they have a long road ahead. Their party is mired in the minority—and may be for some time—and increased Capitol Hill gridlock has left them out of any major decision-making. And even within their caucus, reasons for optimism are hard to come by: The seniority system and lack of term limits means top committee slots don't change hands for years.
Members who have arrived since 2010 haven't experienced the legislative highs of the veterans who passed legislation while in the majority. And they're several rungs down the ladder when it comes to when it comes to seniority. Most won't admit to being demoralized, but they say the adjustment to life as a House Democrat hasn't always been easy.
"It's been a transition, coming from the state Legislature where we were in the majority party," said second-term Rep. Julia Brownley, who was a six-year member of the California State Assembly. "I chaired a large committee, got bills signed by the governor. I feel like here as a new member it's disappointing that we're not getting the big things done for the country. "¦ Going through this kabuki or antics is disappointing, because we have a lot of important work to get done, and it's not getting done."
Rep. John Delaney, a fellow second-termer, made millions in the world of finance before entering the world of politics. "I came from the private sector," he said. "I was surprised at the hard partisan edge that comes out of the Congress. "¦ We've spent half the year talking about whether to fund something that we knew we were going to fund. Debating the inevitable is frustrating because it's a waste of time."
Another sophomore, Rep. Eric Swalwell, is a member of the United Solutions Caucus, a bipartisan group of a few dozen of his 2012 classmates. He cited the group's collaborative spirit but acknowledged that members in his position can often have only a limited impact. "You can't just come in as a freshman or sophomore and think that just because you want to work with the other side you're going to come up with something that is sweeping or transformational," he said. "I'm very impatient, and this is not a place for the impatient."
A House Democratic leadership aide acknowledged that such frustrations are prevalent—but not just within the caucus. "It's not like young House Republicans are getting anything done either," he said. "There are no big policy proposals around. "¦ It's not like they're racking up wins, and their folks are excited."
In the absence of landmark legislation, some say the only way they can be productive is to focus on smaller, more district-oriented solutions. "They are important local solutions to local problems," said sophomore Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney of the bills he has helped pass. "They may not make the front page of The New York Times, but I'm very proud of [the bills]. "¦ We've set our sights on things that can get done that get less attention."
Rep. Dina Titus served a term in the majority after President Obama was elected, lost in 2010, but won a seat in a new district in the next election. "It's been a transition," she said. "I served in the minority in the [Nevada] state Senate for 20 years, so I've learned that you pick your battles. "¦ We certainly do a lot of constituent service to make up the fact that not much legislation is moving."
Still, the partisan fights, funding battles, and near-shutdowns have taken their toll on some. "I'm frustrated sometimes by watching so many of my colleagues on both sides of the aisle think that being effective in Congress is ranting and raving on the floor about some stupid thing instead of focusing on what can get done," Maloney said.
Such frustrations have already cost the caucus at least one member. Rep. Janice Hahn, in office since 2010, decided in February to give up her House career to run for L.A. County supervisor. "Washington is broken, it's increasingly mired in political gridlock, and there's virtually zero cooperation between the two parties," she said in a statement announcing her decision. "That's not the kind of government I grew up with, and it's precisely why I know I can do more for the Los Angeles region on the Board of Supervisors."
Meanwhile, at least a half-dozen Democrats elected since 2010 are considering Senate bids next cycle. Of course, such ambition among the party's young talent isn't necessarily a product of frustration with the House, but at least one potential candidate is clearly unhappy with life in the lower chamber.
"I ran because I wanted to make a difference, I want to get things done for people," two-term Rep. Patrick Murphy of Florida told National Journal last month, during a lengthy House fight over funding for the Homeland Security Department. "I just talked to my people back home, and they're just so tired of the Republican-Democrat, the petty fight. It seems like bigger issues that need to be debated, and we're sucking up so much time and diverting it from what should be talked about. It's just frustrating."
Not everyone is convinced that an exodus of frustrated members would be a bad thing. "If you're going to come here, and you're just going to feel frustrated and moan and cry yourself to sleep, go and do something else," said Rep. Lois Frankel, who is entering her second term. "If you're disheartened, and if you're frustrated, you sort of have to give way to someone who is optimistic and has energy. "¦ It's like going to play football and then someone tackles you and you say, 'Oh, I didn't know that was gonna happen.' "
Generalized congressional concerns aside, younger Democratic members are split on whether their caucus should adopt term limits for committee heads, to allow fresh talent to rise. "They're not as inclusive as they should be," Delaney said. "There's a lot of talent in the caucus. The use of the seniority, as opposed to a meritocracy, you don't make use of that talent."
Maloney agreed. "I don't think there is any reason for the seniority system at all," he said. "It's a relic. I think it gets in the way of a merit-based approach which should define who we are as a party. "¦ Frankly, the Republicans do a better job of this than we do." (House Republicans limit their members to six years atop committees.)
Others were less quick to prescribe term limits but acknowledged that the current system is less than ideal for newer members. "You get to your committee meeting—someone like me, I literally have to wait three hours to ask a question," Frankel said. "I kid you not, very often I am the last person sitting in the committee room with the chairman."
Even patiently waiting to head a committee, said Rep. Rick Nolan, might not be worth the payoff anymore. Nolan, who served in the 1970s and 80s, was reelected in 2012 and isn't happy with the way Congress operates today. Thanks to a breakdown in regular order, he said, massive deals are negotiated by a few people at the top, rather than working their way through the committee process.
"If you're chairman of a committee, and you've been fighting your way through elections every two years for 10, 15, 20 years, that's what you've been fighting for and working for all your life," he said. "And then suddenly the jurisdiction for the legislation that goes through your committee is yanked from you—it's kind of embarrassing and disappointing."
For the moment, though, most Democrats say their leadership is doing what it can to find them meaningful roles—despite the political realities that hamstring their impact. They cite task forces that House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has helped to create and a willingness to groom young talent. "Leader Pelosi has empowered the next generation of members," Swalwell said.
Swalwell was recently named to head the Future Forum, a group tasked with reaching young voters. The leadership aide noted up-and-coming Democrats' roles on the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Chairman Ben Ray Lujan was elected in 2008, and Reps. Dan Kildee and Denny Heck, both elected in 2012, hold key roles. The aide also pointed out that 11 of 43 sophomores serve on much-coveted exclusive committees—the powerful panels whose members usually sit on no other committees. Pelosi, he added, waited three terms to get a seat on the Appropriations Committee.
And if a majority in the House—or even a deal-making atmosphere—isn't anywhere in sight, no one is talking of giving up on Congress just yet. After all, they say, they were elected to serve, even if this wasn't quite what they'd envisioned. "Someone has to do it," Frankel said. "Wouldn't it better be me?"
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