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For Now, House Democrats Opt Against Rules Changes

Bass, D-Calif., walks down the House steps following a vote in the Capitol last week. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Bass, D-Calif., walks down the House steps following a vote in the Capitol last week. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Updated 9:21 a.m. | House Republicans aren’t the only ones mulling conference rules changes in the midst of larger anxieties over the future of their party.  

House Democrats have also been evaluating the longstanding internal policies that govern their caucus and largely dictate who has power.  

Rep. Karen Bass, in her capacity as chairwoman of the Democrats’ Committee on Organization, Study and Review, quietly announced to colleagues last Tuesday she had concluded a multi-month effort to streamline the Democratic Caucus rulebook.  

The California lawmaker informed members that, after over a dozen meetings with various configurations of her peers, virtually none of their proposals would be formally integrated into the overhaul.  

But for most members, the process was likely less about getting results than about resuming a conversation that consumed the caucus nearly one year ago and continues to concern lawmakers today.  

Almost every recommendation made to OSR, according to a memo from Bass obtained by CQ Roll Call, can be directly linked to the late-2014 fights for ranking member gavels on Energy and Commerce and Veterans’ Affairs.  

Though the battle to be top Democrat on Energy and Commerce was the ugliest, most prolonged and highest profile of the two ranking member races, both sparked strong disagreements about the caucus’ longstanding institutional structures that help some members and hinder others.  

Among the biggest preoccupation for House Democrats — reflected in the recommendations to OSR outlined in the Bass memo — is whether the caucus should, like the GOP, adopt a cap on how many years a member can serve at the helm of a committee or subcommittee.  

Term limits, many Democrats argue, would create new opportunities for ambitious lawmakers who would otherwise face years of waiting for turnover at the top — some committee ranking members are well into their 70s and 80s and show few signs of slowing down.  

Some members also say term limits would provide a new incentive for lawmakers to be team players. Right now, there are virtually zero repercussions for longstanding Democratic committee leaders who don’t fundraise aggressively or pay their annual dues to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. That could change if a chairman or ranking-member position was considered a reward for efforts and contributions that benefit the entire caucus.  

One Democrat specifically suggested term limits “be fully examined, debated and voted on by the Caucus,” according to Bass’s memo. Another member said official rules should “require every Caucus Member to enter into a plan/agreement that reflects their choices and their ability to ‘make good’ on the elements of their individual commitments.”  

Members who support term limits tend to oppose the seniority system, the long-held, unofficial policy that gives deference to the most senior member on a committee when determining who gets to move up. Members of the Congressional Black Caucus in particular say the system protects lawmakers of color against being passed over, intentionally or not.  

These issues came up in both the Energy and Commerce and Veterans’ Affairs races ahead of the 114th Congress. In each one, a more senior member faced off, and prevailed, against a more junior lawmaker: Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. of New Jersey against Anna G. Eshoo of California, and Rep. Corrine Brown of Florida against Tim Walz of Minnesota, respectively.  

Two separate disagreements arose in the final stretches of each of these races, and some rules recommendations outlined in Bass’s memo suggest members haven’t yet forgotten.  

During the Pallone-Eshoo fight, the tally looked so close it appeared every vote would matter. Rep. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., a double amputee war veteran who was at the time confined to her bed on maternity leave, wanted to vote by proxy. The problem was, she was a public Pallone supporter, and Eshoo’s allies didn’t want her vote to count.  

Those who opposed to Duckworth’s request argued proxy votes are not allowed in the caucus and therefore it wouldn’t be appropriate to make an exception. But some Democrats accused Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who was actively supporting Eshoo, of playing favorites when she didn’t intervene in the Democratic Steering and Policy decision to deny Duckworth her ask; they grumbled she could have used her clout to influence the outcome in Duckworth’s favor, and her failure to do so appeared in contradiction to her longstanding advocacy of women’s rights.  

Accordingly, one lawmaker suggested to OSR that the revised rulebook provide language codifying the prohibition against proxy voting.  

The Brown-Walz race was complicated by two factors. One had to do with Walz being white, and also that he was on the committee through an leadership-issued waiver. Brown, meanwhile, is black, and was officially next in line for the ranking member slot under the seniority system.  

The CBC quickly rallied behind Brown and warned of consequences if members backed Walz. But the real issue with Waltz had less to do with seniority concerns than with confusion over what rights he had to run for the committee leadership position, given his waiver.  

Leadership ultimately ruled Walz was not in order to compete against Brown, settling the matter before the caucus had to take a vote. However, the highest ranking enlisted officer to ever serve in Congress did receive another waiver to sit on the committee for the next two years.  

In the end, the Walz questions prompted the only substantive rules change recommended by OSR to the full caucus: Leadership will now likely be directed to “record all agreements for waivers, grandfathering and special permission with the Steering and Policy Committee in a matter that will be available to members.”  

Less dramatic rules proposals reflected the anxieties about newer members having a chance to grow and thrive in the caucus. One would have directed party leaders to be “mindful” when appointing members to special boards and commissions about who has had opportunities before and who hasn’t; another would have required every committee to elect a one-term “vice-chair” or “vice-ranking member” who is only two or four years into his or her tenure on the panel.  

Of course, the minority party’s challenge is not nearly as dire as the majority’s in terms of healing wounds and finding compromise through revising processes and procedures. Unlike Republicans , Democrats are under no time pressure to rewrite their rulebook to facilitate an election for their next leader.  

But in airing their grievances to OSR, Democrats have started what outgoing Speaker John A. Boehner likes to call “a family conversation ” among rank-and-file lawmakers — and while Bass has completed her committee’s work, the discussion, as ever, goes on.  



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