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Amid talk of generational change, Democrats eye committee leaders

House, Senate proposals could push out longtime panel heads

A proposal House Democrats will consider to set term limits for leading committees could affect Reps. Frank Pallone Jr. of New Jersey, right, and Richard E. Neal of Massachusetts, center.
A proposal House Democrats will consider to set term limits for leading committees could affect Reps. Frank Pallone Jr. of New Jersey, right, and Richard E. Neal of Massachusetts, center. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Democrats in both chambers of Congress are seizing on the rising support for generational change in party leadership and proposing ways to apply that to their committee leaders in addition to the elected leadership teams. 

The House is preparing for a seismic shift in power with Speaker Nancy Pelosi stepping down from leadership after 20 years leading her caucus and her top two deputies willing to relinquish those coveted spots to make way for a new trio of top leaders.

That long-anticipated changing of the guard has seemed to embolden Democrats who’ve spent years discussing other ways to decentralize power in a caucus where elected leaders of all stripes can serve endlessly with few limits. 

Pelosi promised in a deal to secure the speaker’s gavel four years ago she would  limit her leadership tenure to two final terms. She honored that self-imposed limit, which the caucus never formally adopted, when she announced earlier this month she would not run for leadership again but still remain in the House.

House Democrats have spent years internally debating the merits of term limits for elected leaders and committee chairs/ranking members. But in recent years the talk never turned into formal caucus action. 

That will change Wednesday as House Democrats are set to vote on an amendment to their caucus rules that would institute a six-year term limit for Democratic committee leaders, counting time served as chair and ranking member together. The amendment from Illinois Rep. Bill Foster is similar to a term limit House Republicans already impose, but the GOP rule also applies to subcommittee leaders and his proposal would not. 

Similar to Republicans’ rule, Foster’s proposal would allow Democrats wanting to serve longer than six years to request a waiver. But instead of the party’s Steering Committee making that call, as the GOP rule stipulates, the Foster proposal would have the full Democratic Caucus vote on requested waivers. 

Most House chairs affected

If Foster’s proposal is adopted, a majority of House Democratic committee chairs would need waivers to return as ranking members in January. Among them are Richard E. Neal on Ways and Means, Frank Pallone Jr. on Energy and Commerce, Maxine Waters on Financial Services, Adam Smith on Armed Services, Robert C. Scott on Education and Labor and Bennie Thompson on Homeland Security. 

Republicans adopted a three-term limit for committee leaders in the full House rules in 1995, so it applied to both parties. Democrats kept that rule in place when they took the majority in 2007 but then decided two years later to get rid of it. 

There’s a concern among some Democrats that Republicans will try to force their term limit on Democrats through a House rule change, regardless of what happens with the Foster amendment to their caucus rules.

Over the past decade, the Democratic Caucus has had several more internal debates about term limits that have gone nowhere amid concerns about losing institutional knowledge and stymieing diversity. 

[Term Limits Talks Roil House Democrats]

Those arguments against term limits haven’t changed much over the years. 

“I’m not for term limits,” House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer told reporters Tuesday. “We have term limits. Every two years committee chairman have to be reelected, just like members of Congress have to be reelected every two years.”

Current caucus rules do technically require caucus approval of sitting committee leaders to return, but it’s become largely a formality done without debate. And members have become shy about publicly challenging a sitting committee chair. 

“Members need to make decisions if they think a chairman is doing well or not. And if the answer is not, replace them,” Hoyer said. 

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., center, Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and Sen. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., at a news conference on April 5. Under a proposed rule change, Stabenow and Durbin would have to choose between serving in leadership or chairing committees.

Senate proposals

House members aren’t the only ones having discussions about committee leadership rules.

In the Senate Democratic Caucus, Rhode Island Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse has proposed to limit the ability of full committee chairs to serve in leadership roles starting in 2025. An internal caucus vote on that rule change and others is expected on Thursday. 

Whitehouse made a bid for Judiciary chairman for the current Congress, though he was defeated by Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin, with the Illinois Democrat having seniority on the panel in addition to his No. 2 slot in leadership.

Three of the top four Democratic leaders next Congress are likely to again have gavels, if Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow of Michigan and Rules and Administration Chairwoman Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota slide up in rank. 

Sen. Jon Tester of Montana said that both proponents and opponents of the change made good arguments Tuesday and that he was weighing the proposal.

Tester said supporters argued that, “These are six positions that are held by three people that if you had six people, they could do a better job. It’s not to say that the people aren’t doing a good job now, but there’s some merit to that.”

Senate Democrats are reworking their leadership structure with Sen. Patty Murray of Washington vacating the current assistant leader position to become president pro tempore, as well as Appropriations chair. The president pro tempore position, which is defined in the Constitution as part of the presidential line of succession, isn’t a part of the Democratic leadership team so it appears Murray would be insulated from the Whitehouse rule if it’s adopted. 

Durbin opposes Whitehouse’s rule change but said Tuesday he doesn’t know if there will be enough votes to defeat it. Whitehouse declined to comment on his own proposal and other members were largely mum. 

“I think it’s worthwhile for us to continue to have a conversation about how we democratize power in the caucus,” said Sen. Christopher S. Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat who said he had not determined how he would vote on the Whitehouse proposal.

Murphy noted there are other proposals on the table, including efforts to enhance the power of subcommittee chairs to hold hearings.

“I just think there’s a lot of talented people in this caucus and there’s an understandable desire to … increase the contributions that rank-and-file members make,” he said.

Aidan Quigley contributed to this report.

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