The House Democrats who will decide this week whether it’s time for younger, less-tenured leadership have served in the chamber an average of close to six full terms, and nearly six in 10 are over the age of 60.
Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has drawn criticism for not fostering leadership opportunities for younger caucus members. The 76-year-old Californian, who has been the chamber’s top Democrat since 2003, is facing a challenge from 43-year-old Tim Ryan, a seven-term congressman from Ohio, who says that after four straight disappointing elections for House Democrats, it’s time for a change at the top.
But 57 percent of the 198 Democratic representatives and delegates who will serve in the 115th Congress and are eligible to vote in Wednesday’s leadership election are 60 or older. The average age of Pelosi and the next four highest-ranking Democrats is 68.2 — within close range of most of their colleagues.
By contrast, House Republicans have a leadership team that is younger by almost two decades. The average age of the current top five GOP leaders is 49.6.
Some younger Democrats who might have been in a position to step up to leadership posts have departed in recent campaign cycles to run for statewide office. In 2016 alone, Maryland Rep. Chris Van Hollen, 57, won the Senate seat vacated by Barbara A. Mikulski, after defeating Rep. Donna Edwards, 58, in a primary. Illinois Rep. Tammy Duckworth, 48, knocked off GOP Sen. Mark S. Kirk while Florida’s Patrick Murphy, 43, mounted an unsuccessful challenge to Republican Sen. Marco Rubio. In California, Loretta Sanchez, 56, lost a race for the state’s open Senate seat.
Age doesn’t necessarily correlate with legislative experience. In a caucus where the longest serving member, Michigan Rep. John Conyers Jr., will be entering his 27th term, 52 percent of members in the 115th Congress will have served four terms or less.
The average Democrat has served 5.6 full terms. The House Democratic leadership team, meanwhile, is considerably longer tenured, with the current top five leaders having served an average of 12.8 full terms.
House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, 77, is the longest serving member of the leadership team; he is finishing his 17th full term. Assistant Democratic Leader James E. Clyburn, 76, and House Democratic Caucus Chairman Xavier Becerra, 58, are both ending their 12th terms. Caucus Vice Chairman Joseph Crowley, 54, who is running uncontested to replace Becerra, is wrapping up his ninth term.
Pelosi has been the top Democrat for half of the 14 full terms she has served in Congress. (She entered Congress in 1987 by winning a partial term in a special election.) Some members feel it is time for her to step aside.
Pelosi has said younger members who have left did so because of other opportunities, not because of lack of openings in House leadership. More recently, though, she said she understands those who feel like the current structure works against them.
“I’m respectful of what people are saying,” Pelosi said earlier this month. “There’s a lot of unease as people have always wanted to — many have said they wanted to have term limits in the committee so that they can rise up. I said, ‘If you want that, you have to go fight for it.’ Because that’s the debate within our caucus.”
Ryan, Pelosi’s challenger, said in a recent interview that he feels the current leadership team is not leveraging the talents of younger members. But his interest in upsetting the current leadership structure is not about age so much as it is about giving someone new a turn to lead.
“In some sense, it’s newer — not necessarily younger — because Nancy Pelosi, when it comes to energy, has more than most of the caucus put together,” he said.
Age and length of service are quantifiable ways to illustrate what some see as a dated leadership team, but the battle lines in the minority leader race are not being drawn within those areas.
At least 80 members have endorsed Pelosi, while at least 12 have endorsed Ryan. His endorsements also cover a good range of the caucus. For example, 44-year-old Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who is completing his second term, is backing Ryan, and so is 62-year-old Tennessee Rep. Jim Cooper, who is finishing his 13th term.
Even if Ryan loses, a strong showing would send a message that the caucus is ready for new leadership.
Another signal of whether House Democrats actually want younger and newer members at the top could come from the result of the caucus vice chairman contest between California Reps. Barbara Lee and Linda T. Sánchez. Lee, 70, is finishing her ninth full term in Congress, while Sánchez, 47, is ending her seventh term.
Regardless, Pelosi’s leadership team does appear poised to make room for some new, young blood.
Pelosi announced last week her support for expanding the elected team and reserving some positions for more junior members. Her endorsement of four specific ideas followed Ryan’s announcement of a similar platform to open up the leadership team.
One idea that Pelosi backed is expanding the Democratic Policy and Communications post from one appointed chairman to three elected co-chairmen that must be filled by members who have served less than five terms — a cohort comprising more than half of the caucus.
Pelosi nominated three members of the current sophomore class to co-chair the policy and communications panel in the next Congress: Illinois Rep. Cheri Bustos, 55; New York Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, 46; and Pennsylvania Rep. Matt Cartwright, 55.
Another change Pelosi is backing is reserving the assistant Democratic leader position — the next time there is a vacancy — for a member who has served fewer than three terms. That’s a quarter of the time Clyburn, who is expected to remain in the post next year, has served.
In the 115th Congress, 40 percent of the caucus will have served less than three full terms, with 19 percent of the caucus entering their third term next year.
Pelosi announced on Monday that she would be adding a representative of the freshman class to the leadership team. The Democratic freshmen will make up 12 percent of the caucus in the 115th Congress. (This figure does not count Reps. Colleen Hanabusa of Hawaii, Carol Shea-Porter of New Hampshire and Brad Schneider of Illinois, who were re-elected Nov. 8 to their old seats after having not served in the 114th Congress.)