Wednesday was a good day for the Congressional Black Caucus: In just a matter of hours, the powerful group saw Democrats’ seniority system — a tradition that has long protected minority lawmakers from being passed over for leadership positions — prevail not once, but twice.
First, Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. — the No. 3 Democrat on the Energy and Commerce Committee — beat the No. 5 panel Democrat, Rep. Anna G. Eshoo of California, in the race to be ranking member.
He’s not a member of the CBC, but Pallone showed that lawmakers had no intention of bowing to pressure from some party leaders, such as Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, to disregard the House Democratic Caucus’s deference to the decades-old seniority precedent.
Hours later, the CBC saw one of its own, Rep. Corrine Brown of Florida, not only poised to ascend to the ranking member perch on Veterans’ Affairs, but do so uncontested, after her challenger, Rep. Tim Walz of Minnesota, was ruled ineligible to be a candidate for the job.
Walz is Congress’s highest-ranking enlisted soldier ever, but he is also, technically speaking, the least senior member on the committee, serving on it in the 113th Congress thanks to a waiver.
His disqualification left veterans’ services organization — groups that want to see a vet overseeing the committee on behalf of House Democrats — crying foul.
And there were surely members inside the caucus who were disappointed that Walz was unable to compete, but they kept quiet. Nobody wanted to go on the record as a supporter of the person challenging Brown and, by proxy, the CBC.
The closest anyone got to “outing” themselves as being for Walz was Michael H. Michaud of Maine, the retiring top Democrat who doesn’t have anything to lose by taking an unpopular position, and Peter Welch of Vermont, who made the motion inside the Steering and Policy Committee to give Walz full committee member status so he could run for ranking member.
Brown is the No. 2 Democrat on the panel behind Michaud — and newly elected CBC Chairman G.K. Butterfield of North Carolina said last week that if Walz prevailed over Brown, it would cause irreparable fault lines in the Caucus.
Butterfield and other CBC members said they felt all along that Walz lacked the standing to run against Brown. But there was also a concern that allowing Walz to put his bid before the Caucus would be significant, disruptive and demoralizing.
If some CBC members were heartened by the developments of Wednesday, however, it was also a sobering reminder that they see their fight as being far from over.
“It shows this is something we will have to continue to litigate in the Congressional Black Caucus on whether seniority means anything as we move into the 21st century,” said CBC member and former Chairman Emanuel Cleaver II of Missouri.
In the Energy and Commerce ranking member race, Pallone beat Eshoo by 10 votes — a nail-bitingly close margin for members who want to believe the seniority system is sacrosanct.
The onus on CBC members to prove Walz’s ineligibility to challenge Brown for Veterans’ Affairs was also something they thought ought not to have been the case.
By the time Walz was telling reporters he thought his waiver to sit on Veterans’ Affairs in the 114th Congress had been revoked in the process of qualifying to run for the ranking member spot, Cleaver said, “He was never on the committee to begin with!”
In her statement thanking fellow House Democrats for electing her to be ranking member, Brown said she was “humbled and honored” but made no mention of Walz. It is customary for a winner of a leadership race — or any race, for that matter — to acknowledge there was a loser in the mix. After Energy and Commerce was called for Pallone, he stood arm-in-arm with Eshoo and the two posed for pictures, smiling.
Walz, Brown, the seniority system and the CBC were also being used by some lawmakers to make sense of Eshoo’s loss. A senior Democratic aide told CQ Roll Call that Walz’s challenge of Brown was a “critical factor” leading up to Eshoo’s failure to prevail over Pallone.
“The CBC felt under attack and went to bat for one of their own — and not being for Pallone was seen as weakening Brown’s candidacy.”
Butterfield, for all his strong words against Walz for trying to buck the seniority system, dismissed that argument. “It’s not a fair comparison,” he said. “They are two completely different races.”
There were, in fact, a handful of CBC members who voted for Eshoo, whether because of friendship, regional affiliation or an appreciation of the fact that she was a woman looking to fill the senior seat on the panel Dominated for decades by men.
But for Rep. Bobby L. Rush, D-Ill., a CBC member who sits between Pallone and Eshoo in seniority on Energy and Commerce, there was little question that House Democrats had done good on Wednesday.
“American is great. Democracy works. And the seniority system works,” Rush said. “America is a beautiful country, Congress is a great institution and seniority means that me and my children and generations to come will look upon this race and see that [seniority] is the most powerful weapon that we have.”