More broadly, Ryan was channeling a growing anxiety among his colleagues (and the party more broadly) that, if House Democrats don’t find a way to loosen caucus elders’ death grip on the levers of power, junior members will grow ever-more frustrated about their lack of upward mobility––and the entire team will be consigned to permanent minority status.
Age can be a delicate subject on the Hill, where many lawmakers dig in and serve until they have, let us say, lost a step or two. (I’ll spare you the details of the time an ancient Senator got muddled and commanded a colleague of mine to escort him to the potty.) But pretty much everyone agrees that there are downsides to having a trio of mid-septuagenarians—Pelosi at 76, Steny Hoyer at 77, and James Clyburn at 76—locking up the top three spots indefinitely.
For starters, it doesn’t exactly portray Dems as the party of the future. “When you have the top three leaders in the House in their mid 70s, optically it’s probably not great,” says a former top House leadership aide—who, like most folks I spoke with, asked for anonymity on this ticklish topic. (By way of contrast, on the Republican side of the chamber, Speaker Paul Ryan is 46, while Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and chief whip Steve Scalise are both 51.)
This can be particularly frustrating for younger members looking to shake things up, said Moran. “They’re looking at leadership that is not just of their parents age, it is of their grandparents’ age, for some of them.”
The situation is not limited to the top slots, clarifies the former House aide. The caucus relies heavily on seniority when doling out chairmanships to, say, the Steering Committee and the Policy and Communications Committee (which handles messaging), as well as when choosing ranking members of committees like Appropriations and Judiciary. “So you have people who are long in the tooth who have been there forever as the ranking members on these key committees,” said the former aide.
“Younger members feel there’s no visible path to leadership,” said Moran, who retired from the House in 2015 after 12 terms. “And I don’t know that they’re necessarily looking for power, but they’re looking for more influence.”
Indeed, the broader problem isn’t age so much as stagnation. Pelosi has been the top Democrat for 14 years, with Hoyer and Clyburn as her numbers 2 and 3 since 2010. On the upside, this makes for an experienced leadership team, which Pelosi supporters cite as particularly valuable heading into a period of unified Republican rule. But there are downsides as well, especially in terms of the party’s longer-term health.
“With Congresswoman Pelosi and Congressmen Hoyer and Clyburn all atop there for so long, it has led to all sorts of complications,” said a former Senate leadership staffer who also wished to remain nameless to avoid the wrath of Pelosi et al. Combine that top-level blockage with limited turnover among ranking members of the committees, and it starts to impede up-and-comers ’ ability to, well, up and come. “There’s not only a lack of strong bench within caucus, it’s leading in part to a lack of a strong bench in the national party,” said the former staffer. For example, junior members have trouble gaining the experience and profile to return home and run for governor.