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Decades-Old House Democratic Leadership Likely to Remain Intact

Some complain ambitious young lawmakers have nowhere to go

House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi is expected to remain in her post for the next Congress, possibly with a fortified caucus. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi is expected to remain in her post for the next Congress, possibly with a fortified caucus. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

House Democrats expect their ranks to swell in the next Congress if Donald Trump’s problems on the presidential campaign trail have a trickle-down effect come November. One thing that won’t change, however, is the composition of the Democrats’ veteran leadership team.

Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California, 76, shows no signs of stepping down from the top post she has occupied since 2003. Neither does Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, 77, nor Assistant Democratic Leader James E. Clyburn of South Carolina, 76.

Political analysts say there are advantages to having a seniority system that places the most experienced leaders at the levers of power. But the lack of sufficient upward movement has left some Democrats frustrated.

“It’s at a standstill. There’s no churn,” said Matthew Green, associate professor of politics at Catholic University. “At some point, ambitious lawmakers need some kind of avenue.”

It’s unclear whether Pelosi will at some point designate a successor or otherwise shuffle the caucus’ upper echelon. The lack of such a transition plan could stoke rivalries, not unlike the one between Pelosi and Hoyer after she defeated him for the job of minority whip in 2002.

“It’s healthier to the party that there are successors that are being groomed or there’s an heir apparent,” Green said.

[Like a Rolling Stone]

Maintaining a stable leadership team has some merits, said Sarah Binder, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

“There is some value to having what we think of [as] repeat players, people who know the other side,” Binder said. “The minority party Democrats end up with more power than we might typically expect from a House minority party given the realities of legislating in a divided and polarized Congress.”

Pelosi has worked to elevate a few younger Democrats, concentrating on minorities and women. She chose New Mexico Rep. Ben Ray Luján, 44, to chair the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. She also gave fellow Californian Eric Swalwell, 35, a seat on the Intelligence Committee. Luján was first elected in 2008; Swalwell in 2012.

There will be one change in Pelosi’s team forced by term limits.

California Rep. Xavier Becerra is ending his tenure as caucus chairman, the No. 4 spot in the House Democratic hierarchy, due to term limits. His likely replacement will be Rep. Joseph Crowley of New York who is finishing up two terms as caucus vice chairman and is so far running unopposed.

The only contested leadership race expected will pit Linda T. Sánchez against Barbara Lee for Crowley’s current position. Both Sánchez and Lee are from California.

[The Maryland Democrat Who Wants to Stay Where He Is]

Despite the changes, some veteran Democrats say a lack of diversity in the party is leading a few up-and-coming Democrats to look at other options.

A frequently cited example is Maryland Democratic Rep. Chris Van Hollen, the ranking member on the Budget Committee, who opted to run for the open Senate seat being vacated by retiring Maryland Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski.

When Democrats lost the House in 2010, Van Hollen lost both his job as an an assistant to then-Speaker Pelosi and his seat on the influential Ways and Means Committee as Democratic committee rosters shrank.

Political experts also point to Rep. Steve Israel of New York, who announced in January that he wouldn’t seek a ninth term. Israel has been one of Pelosi’s closest allies — so much so that when she couldn’t find a leadership position following his tenure as chairman of the DCCC, she created one for him.

He now chairs the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee. In deciding not to run for re-election, Israel said at the time that he wanted to “ensure that my district, which is the only competitive district in House Democratic Leadership, remains in the hands of Democrats when I leave.”

Rep. Charlie Rangel said Israel’s decision was part of an effort “wrapping this thing up for Obama, making certain that we get there and then let younger people come in with Hillary.”

Contact Rahman at or follow her on Twitter at @remawriter.

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