Pelosi Remains Leader, but the Democrats Are Restless

Younger caucus members are frustrated with the entrenched, aging leadership of the Democratic Party.

Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

Let’s all pause and offer a consolatory air-hug to Rep. Tim Ryan, who flopped in his long-shot attempt to unseat House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi in the caucus’s leadership vote on Wednesday.

The race was never much of a nail biter, and Pelosi, who has held her post since November 2002, wound up winning 134-63. Still, Ryan, a 43-year-old economic populist representing Ohio’s working-class 13th district, deserves props for braving a challenge. Her smiley-grandmother shtick notwithstanding, Pelosi can be honey-badger mean, and most Democrats, both on and off the Hill, would rather gnaw out their own tongues than cross her. “Tim’s on kind of a sacrificial, suicidal mission,” former Representative Jim Moran told me in a Wednesday morning call. “He’s walking the plank as we speak.”

But as Ryan’s allies will tell you, his challenge was about more than personal ambition. (Indeed, no one seemed to think he had a real shot at victory.) Nor was it simply about concerns that Pelosi—who epitomizes the urban, coastal, lefty flank of the Democratic party—might not be the person best equipped to broaden its appeal going forward. (Although, make no mistake, that is a hot topic of conversation these days.)

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.

“There are folks chomping at the bit over there, trying to get more of a role,” added the former staffer. “But, with the current situation, it’s not happening.” Rep. Xavier Becerra is often cited as a smart ambitious Democrat being held back by the current system. (A heartbeat after long-time Ways and Means ranking member Sander Levin announced this week that he would not seek another term as top Democrat on the influential committee, Becerra began lobbying for the job.) Similarly, Congressman turned Senator-elect Chris Van Hollen is widely regarded as a potential Pelosi successor who grew weary of waiting and so set his sites on the upper chamber.

A lack of turnover at the top also leads to a lack of fresh ideas, say younger lawmakers like Ruben Gallego, one of the agitators who—much to Pelosi’s dismay—pushed the caucus to delay leadership elections for a couple of weeks. Junior members need more of a voice, said Gallego, who backed Ryan’s bid for leader, “so they can bring in different ideas about how to message, how to conduct better races, how to do better candidate recruitment.”

Gallego stressed that Ryan’s challenge to Pelosi was in part about pushing for a less “top down” management approach. “Part of this is asking for new leadership,” he told me on the eve of the election. “But members are also asking for structural reforms.”

Most notably, young reformers want certain leadership positions (like head of the steering and messaging committees) to be determined by election rather than appointment. “A person elected by membership is accountable to us and represents us,” said Gallego. “For someone who is appointed, their accountability and existence are based on their relationship with leadership. That doesn’t allow for divergent views, new ideas. It doesn’t bring accountability, which we need more than anything else.”

Feeling the heat, in the run-up to Wednesday’s vote, Pelosi announced her own reforms, which included creating new vice-ranking slots on each committee, to be filled specifically by junior members, and changing the third-in-command position Clyburn now holds to an elected seat reserved for members who have served three terms or less. (The change won’t take effect until Clyburn is gone.)

It’s not enough, said Gallego, among others. “Her piecemeal approach is nice in the sense that it is getting new people into leadership. But it doesn’t fundamentally change the bigger problem of more accountability for leadership.” The former Senate aide is less charitable, calling Pelosi’s tweaks a “fig leaf” that fails to “get at the heart of the matter.”

“I think the problem is, in the eyes of many, that she can’t really fix the system without relinquishing control and letting the system fix itself with the members buying into the process,” posited Moran. “I think what she’s trying to do is to fix it in a way that mitigates the caucus’ concerns without relinquishing any substantive control.”

“What we want is for leadership to recognize that they are there for us,” said Gallego. “They are our representatives when dealing with Republicans. We are their constituents.”

At this point, some Democrats are even casting a wary eye at the Republican conference, where more leadership positions are determined by election and where committee chairmen are subject to six-year term limits. “Paul Ryan—who I think is not a particularly good Speaker of the House—at the same time, he is still accountable to his caucus, as crazy as they may be,” said Gallego. “In that sense they have better representation in the goals and direction of that caucus than there is right now within our caucus.”

So while Republicans may have taken things too far with their hard term limits, the former House aide noted, surely a middle path can be found between kicking people out after an arbitrary number of years and letting them stay forever. “Creative people could come up with some sort of system,” he said. “You have to give some sort of hope to newer members that there is path forward.”

Any meaningful shift from the current system is likely to be painful. But that doesn’t mean it’s not needed. As things stand, said the former aide, far too many junior members get the feeling that they have little choice but to wait around for senior lawmakers to “retire or die.”