Nancy Pelosi
Nancy Pelosi Credit: A. Shaker/VOA/Wikicommons

I probably shouldn’t make any more election predictions this year, but it doesn’t seem likely that Tim Ryan will succeed in dethroning Nancy Pelosi as the leader of the House Democrats when they hold their leadership elections on Wednesday. Nonetheless, he’s forced Pelosi to negotiate with her restive caucus and offer some reforms.

A lot of the reforms have to do with providing more leadership opportunities for new members who feel shut out by the hard seniority system the Democrats use both formally (on committee assignments) and informally.

The most controversial proposal involves making “the third-ranking leadership post, currently held by Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.), a 12-term [Congressional Black Caucus] CBC member, …an elected seat reserved for lawmakers who have served three terms or less.” Rep. Clyburn has nothing to worry about because he’d be grandfathered into his post. Other proposals include:

• The creation of vice-ranking member positions on each committee, to be held by panel members who have served four terms or less.

• Making the now-appointed head of the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee (DPCC), a spot currently held by outgoing-Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.), an elected position reserved for lawmakers serving fewer than three terms.

This gets entwined in internal racial politics in an interesting way. For a long time, black members who were first elected to Congress in the late 1960s and the 1970s were shut out of leadership positions due to lack of seniority, but their seats became safe in many instances and by the 1990’s they were benefitting from the seniority system. Understandably, they didn’t like the idea of changing the rules they had suffered under at the exact point in time that they stood to gain from it.

As things stand, many CBC members are serving (or set to serve) as the ranking (senior) members on committees. There’s Maxine Waters on Financial Services and John Conyers at Judiciary and Bennie Thompson on Homeland Security, for example. This history interjects itself into what might otherwise be a discussion purely on the merits of reforms in the present.

Seniority is obviously an imperfect barometer of expertise and competence, and sometimes capable leaders grow old and can no longer serve competently in positions of responsibility. But, on balance, a member who has served for fifteen years on a committee is better prepared to lead that committee than a freshman or sophomore member. The seniority system is a blunt instrument, but easily understandable, enforceable, and basically fair.

It does, however, disadvantage younger members and they are acting restless in the face of the election results.

I’m not sure that proposals like the one to create vice-ranking member positions on each committee for relative newcomers are going to do much either in a substantive way or as a balm for cranky feelings. The minority party in the House has almost no power in any case, and a vice ranking member isn’t going to have much to do. If and when the Democrats regain a majority, this would become a more interesting scenario, but one that might suffer from the “too-many-cooks-in-the-kitchen” problem. This is particularly true because committee chairmen are already historically weak. The Speaker and the leadership team ride herd on the chairmen and give them little independence.

So, I am not convinced these are worthwhile reforms although it’s interesting that Pelosi feels compelled to offer them.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at