MA congressional delegation itching for change

Most want to end seniority; some want to dump Pelosi

GOING INTO THE 2016 ELECTION, Republicans hold 246 seats in the House of Representatives. Democrats have 188. For Massachusetts, with its nine-member, all-Democrat delegation, this is a very bad situation and one that’s unlikely to get better any time soon.

Among the nine, the angst is palpable. The minority party in the House enjoys almost no power, so if Democrats fail to make significant gains in 2016, the angst could explode into anger.

Michael Capuano, the nine-term Somerville Democrat, says that absent a major turnaround, Democrats should fire Rep. Nancy Pelosi of Cali-fornia, their longtime leader. He follows Stephen Lynch of South Boston, who called for Pelosi’s ouster last year. Seth Moulton of Salem, who de-feated incumbent Democrat John Tierney in the 2014 Democratic primary, isn’t going that far, but he says party leaders should dispense with the seniority system that has forever governed who gets top committee posts. He’s not alone. William Keating of Bourne, Niki Tsongas of Lowell, Katherine Clark of Melrose and Joseph P. Kennedy III of Brookline all say they are open to at least revising the rules.

Jettisoning the seniority system could be a setback, however, for two members of the delegation, Richard Neal of Springfield and Jim McGovern of Worcester. Both have waited for years for top committee posts and are on the verge, Neal at Ways and Means, McGovern at Rules. Neal figures to be the third most senior Democrat at Ways and Means next year. McGovern is already the second-ranking Democrat at Rules.

It could be an epic clash between the party’s young guns and its old bulls, and it could even split the party along racial lines. Black Democrats, many of whom have long tenures in safe districts, are among those most opposed to any change. None of the Massachusetts Democrats is black.

Capuano compares Pelosi to the fired Red Sox manager Terry Francona, who won two World Series but then lost the team, and his job. And he would go further with the house cleaning. “It’s not just Nancy,” he says. “The Democratic side has not given fresh blood a real opportunity since I’ve been here and the proof is in the pudding. Take a look at our leadership. It’s all in their 70s and 80s.”

Pelosi just turned 76. Her top deputy, Steny Hoyer of Maryland, turns 77 this spring. Some of the top committee leaders are truly ancient. John Conyers Jr. of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, turns 87 next month. Fellow Michigander Sander Levin at Ways and Means is 85. McGovern is still waiting in line behind New York’s Louise Slaughter to chair the Rules Committee. Slaughter will be 87 this September.

Top Republicans are noticeably younger, led by the 46 year-old House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin.

This is a bizarre situation, given how much more appeal Democrats have with younger voters. President Obama trounced former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney among those aged 18-29 in the 2012 election, 67 percent to 30 percent.

Would it be a stretch to suggest that Democrats would be wise to make better use of some of the fresh faces from Massachusetts, like the handsome grandson of Robert Kennedy or the Iraq War veteran Moulton?

To be fair, Pelosi has found a seat at the table for Clark, who is a senior whip and sits on the party’s Steering and Policy Committee, which makes committee assignments. Clark, not surprisingly, is a Pelosi defender. “I don’t think our problem is our leadership in the House,” she says. Rather, she argues, Democrats must “do a better job of communicating the real strides we’ve been able to make despite being in the minority party.”

It’s true that Democrats have helped get some things done. Last year, for instance, was surprisingly productive, in large part because Democrats were willing to take half a loaf on bills reauthorizing highway spending and federal involvement in K-12 education, among other issues. In each of those cases, the bills would have died in the House if Democrats had voted no en bloc.

The numbers don’t lie. The number of laws enacted last year — 115 — was 60 percent higher than in 2013 and 42 percent higher than 2011, when the Congress was divided between a Republican House and a Democratic Senate.

But taking credit for bills enacted when the other party is in charge is a hard sell. Rather, Democrats’ willingness to make deals has helped Republican leaders make a case that when they control both chambers, they can govern.

It’s a double-edged sword that the Democrats can’t avoid. After all, they are the party of government. “I want to be in the majority again, but not at any cost,” says McGovern. “I feel, and a lot of people in my caucus feel, that we are here to actually help people.”

Even with Republicans now holding up Obama’s nominee to the Supreme Court, few expect Democrats to slow the legislative process. They’d only be blocking things that they like, such as the annual spending bills that keep the government open or bipartisan compromises on issues such as criminal sentencing.

“It’s very unlikely the Democrats would be the main impediment” to enacting such bills, says Steven Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College in Minnesota. “I think that would be a high price to pay to stick it in the eye of Republicans.”

By contrast, when Republicans were exiled to the minority in 2009 and 2010, they stonewalled the Democrats at every turn, even on issues where there was apparent common ground. It was a political strategy. And while it didn’t help dethrone Obama, conservatives came out in force in 2010 and 2014 and took back the Congress. Republicans can get away with blocking policy, even good policy, because their base doesn’t trust government. Democrats can’t do that.

The Massachusetts representatives insist that they haven’t lost the battle of ideas. Rather, they say they lost the last round of redistricting. That’s the decennial process, tied to the US Census, in which the states redraw congressional district lines. “Look at how few moderate districts there are compared to 20 years ago,” says Moulton. “They’ve gerrymandered the country.”

Indeed, Republicans won big in the last round of redistricting. They won the 2014 House election any way you look at it, with 52 percent of the votes cast. But they control 57 percent of the seats. That says something about how the lines are drawn.

In the coming election, the prognosticators give Democrats no chance of picking up the 30 seats they need to take back the House majority. Independent political analyst Stuart Rothenberg, for instance, says only 26 Republican-held seats are even slightly vulnerable.

Capuano says Democrats, the party of good government reforms from independent redistricting commissions to tight caps on campaign fundraising, have forgotten how to play hard-nosed politics. While Republicans have played the game to win, he says, Democrats have played nice. “You tell me what is more important: Being perfectly right on every single issue or winning elections?”

And he spares no words for his frustration with the Democrats’ limited electoral strategies of recent years. The prominent “war on women” message, he says, targeted at best “50 percent of America and of the 50 percent, really about 20 percent of them. That small group you’re talking to is already, more than likely, voting Democrat.”

None of Capuano’s colleagues is as pointed. But most of them are ready for some process changes. They admit that Republicans were wise, after seizing the House majority in 1994, to institute six-year term limits for their top committee members. The limits apply whether the Republicans hold the majority, and the chairmanships, or are in the minority, and their committee leaders are merely ranking members.

The Democrats’ continued adherence to seniority rules — with some limited exceptions — “is incredibly short-sighted,” says Moulton. In an era of 24 hour news coverage, it behooves the party to put its best, not its oldest, foot forward, he says. “Until we start promoting based on merit, not based on seniority, I don’t think they are doing enough.”

On the Republican side, the term limits helped Ryan rise. He was a Budget Committee chairman at 36 and took over Ways and Means, the powerful tax-writing panel, at 45. Most of the Republican committee chairs now are in their 50s and 60s, substantially younger than their Democratic counterparts.

“I don’t want to lose good members because they feel there is no progress to be made,” says Keating, who wants to dump the seniority rule.

If the Democrats do follow the Republicans, it would mean that McGovern or Neal could be denied the chairmanships they’ve been waiting years for. And McGovern sees the pluses and minuses. “If there are people who are doing incredible work and doing a good job, to put in an artificial limit and say your time is up may not be right,” he says. Kennedy suggests that Democrats go with a hybrid approach, especially in cases such as the Intelligence Committee, where institutional knowledge is especially valuable.

If the change is seriously proposed, it will be a big debate. So will Pelosi’s future, if she opts to continue on after the election. Many defend her. Kennedy, for instance, says “there is a reason why she got there and a reason she stays there.” Pelosi is a skilled legislative tactician and negotiator who’s exploited what little power House Democrats have to the max, most recently in securing a permanent extension of the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit as part of a year-end tax bill.

Meet the Author

Shawn Zeller

Washington Correspondent
She’s a prolific fundraiser and adept listener, Kennedy says. “When you see how she not only leads this party but handles the day-to-day aspects of governance, you realize,” he says.

But in drawing his comparison with former Red Sox manager Francona, Capuano also has a point. “We’ve now lost more seats in history, than in modern history, and we’ve had three chances to get it back. Clearly something’s wrong,” he says. “If we don’t change what we have been doing, the results won’t change.”