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Committee chairs’ power questioned in and outside Congress

As primary voters question whether to re-elect three committee chairs, will the Democratic Caucus revisit its rules that grant leaders indefinite power?

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., says that “there’s a reckoning around the seniority structures here in the House that are probably overdue.”
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., says that “there’s a reckoning around the seniority structures here in the House that are probably overdue.” (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

House Foreign Affairs Chairman Eliot L. Engel is increasingly likely to lose his seat after 32 years in Congress and eight atop the committee. Fellow New York Democrat Carolyn B. Maloney is in the closest race of her 28-year career despite claiming the Oversight and Reform chairmanship last year. Richard E. Neal chairs one of the most powerful committees in Congress, the tax-writing Ways and Means panel, but faces a competitive September primary in Massachusetts.

These members’ constituents don’t seem to care much about the power their representatives hold in the House, where party leaders and committee chairs control the agenda. Ironically, those constituents voting in someone new to start at the bottom of the congressional ranks is effectively the only way to strip away that power from longtime leaders of the Democratic Caucus.

In talking up Engel ahead of his June 23 primary, Speaker Nancy Pelosi noted that he “has the unique privilege” of serving as both Foreign Affairs chairman and a senior member of the Energy and Commerce Committee. 

“That wouldn’t happen again. That’s a lot of power,” the California Democrat told reporters. 

Democrats don’t have term limits for their committee leaders, so members like Engel could serve indefinitely if they keep winning reelection. He has mostly coasted in past elections, but this year he faced a formidable primary challenger in Jamaal Bowman, who is leading Engel by 25 percentage points. The race remains uncalled as New York City is still counting absentee ballots.

[Amid a pandemic and protests, Rep. Eliot Engel is fighting for his political survival]

Maloney has a narrow 1.6 percentage-point edge over primary challenger Suraj Patel, with absentee ballots still being counted. Neal’s primary is not until Sept. 1, but he has already aired television ads — a sign of concern about his progressive challenger, Alex Morse.

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As the Democratic base starts to call for new blood in primaries like these, will the House Democratic Caucus ever revisit its internal power structure to make room for fresh faces? CQ Roll Call posed the question to a dozen Democrats representing a cross section of the caucus and found a majority interested in having that debate.

“I think that there’s a reckoning around the seniority structures here in the House that are probably overdue,” New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said. “The idea that we should be determining leadership predominantly or solely by tenure has been something that has been becoming increasingly under fire this term. And I think that these kind of primary and electoral results are reinforcing that argument that the idea that being here the longest automatically makes you the best leader is … an idea that should be rightfully challenged.”

Ocasio-Cortez, a freshman who won her seat in a 2018 primary upset against then-Democratic Caucus Chairman Joseph Crowley, endorsed Bowman against Engel but did not wade into Maloney’s race.

‘Refreshing the place’

Several members interviewed said they think it’s time for the caucus to revisit committee term limits or explore other ways to give junior members more responsibility. Most said they don’t see Engel’s potential loss or the other primary challenges to committee chairs as the impetus for that debate.

“That’s a whole different subject,” Rep. Jim McGovern said.

The Massachusetts Democrat said he’s supported term limits for committee leaders and when he became Rules chairman there was discussion about whether to bring the matter up for debate in the caucus.  

“We may have that discussion again,” McGovern said.

Rep. Joe Courtney is “skeptical” that the caucus will have a serious debate about committee term limits because it’s been controversial before. But the Connecticut Democrat believes term limits “have a healthier impact in terms of just refreshing the place indirectly.”

“There’s no question that the unlimited seniority creates an incentive for people to stay a long time,” Courtney said. “If you look at some of the turnover on the Republican side, I think it was because people sort of hit the ceiling.”

House Republicans have a conference rule that says their committee leaders cannot serve more than three terms (six years) combined as chair or ranking member without a waiver. Once GOP committee leaders reach their term limit, many opt to retire. But some stay on as rank-and-file members or seek other leadership positions.

If Democrats were to adopt the Republican rule, three-quarters of their 16 elected committee chairs would have to step aside next year. Only Maloney, Neal, Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler and Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Mark Takano have served as chair or ranking member for two or fewer terms. The other 12 elected committee leaders have served anywhere from three to eight terms.

Democrats who support committee term limits are open to the caucus coming up with its own rule rather than adopting the GOP one.

“Should we take it as far as Republicans? Probably not,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “You know, there’s a balance here between … having a system that’s stuck, and then also having a system where there’s so much turnover that there’s a lack of competency. And so you have to find the balance between those two things.”

California Rep. Anna G. Eshoo said she’s always supported term limits, even during her unsuccessful race against New Jersey’s Frank Pallone Jr. to be the top Democrat on the Energy and Commerce Committee. Eshoo was backed by Pelosi and the Democratic Steering Committee, but the caucus chose Pallone, who ranked higher in seniority, to lead the panel.

“I think I’m the only one that actually applied it to myself,” Eshoo said, noting she only served three terms as ranking member of the Energy and Commerce Communications and Technology Subcommittee.


When Democrats previously debated committee term limits, members of the Congressional Black Caucus have been among those driving the opposition. Many remain opposed.

“I don’t know if there’s any appetite in the CBC for committee chairman term limits,” Rep. Hank Johnson said.

The Georgia Democrat’s explanation for opposing term limits is one that many CBC members have expressed over the years.

“Seniority is important,” Johnson said. “It’s also a barometer of experience and mature leadership. Those things should not be thrown away just because of an artificial term limit.”

If committee leaders “are no longer up to the task, then they’d naturally end up moving aside,” he added.

That or their constituents would vote them out of office. “That’s the ultimate term limit right there,” Johnson said.

Education and Labor Chairman Robert C. Scott pointed out that committee leaders technically have to be reelected by the caucus each term, citing an example in which a sitting chairman was ousted. After the 2008 election, California Rep. Henry Waxman challenged Michigan Rep. John Dingell for the Energy and Commerce gavel. Despite Dingell’s nearly three decades atop the panel, Waxman ousted him.

But such challenges are rare. Without competition, Democratic committee leaders are typically reelected by formality: a simple voice or unanimous consent vote of the caucus affirming the entire roster of committee leaders in one fell swoop.

Rep. Anthony G. Brown opposes term limits but said he’d support a more formal system for having committee leaders come back before the caucus to make their case for staying on — “almost like a retention vote.”

“I’ll probably never become a committee chair,” the Maryland Democrat said. “I won’t be around long enough because of seniority. But I just think if you achieve the position of chair and the caucus is applying all the criteria to put you in that position — and seniority is only one of the several criteria — then unless there’s cause to remove you, then I don’t think, you know, we should just put in an artificial term limit.”

Still, Brown said he does not think Democrats are doing a good job of grooming junior members and they could give them more responsibility, like letting them manage floor debate instead of committee chairs.

One step Democrats took after the 2016 election was to create committee vice chair/ranking member positions reserved for more junior panel members. Brown, vice chairman of Armed Services, said he and Rep. Salud Carbajal, vice chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, joke about starting a Vice Chair Caucus to advocate for more responsibility.

“Unless you give the vice chair some prescribed duties and responsibility, it’s only what the committee chair makes the position,” Brown said.

A caucus vote on committee term limits or other leadership changes may have more support this year given the large size of the freshman class. Some newer members have begun discussing options for de-consolidating power.

“I do think that’s going to be part of the discussions moving forward. We’ve got so many new people coming in,” said Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan, who’s been part of previous efforts to challenge the Democratic leadership structure.

Eshoo, like Ryan, suggested any serious discussion about committee term limits would likely be prompted by newer members.

“I think the longer people are here the less appetite they have for it,” she said. “I think it has to happen when new members come in.”

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