House Democrats are at odds over whether to adopt intraparty term limits for their elected leaders and committee chairs, even as it offers them a way out of their current impasse on the race for the speakership.
The House Democratic Caucus has long wrestled with the idea of term limits. House Republicans adopted a rule in 1995 to limit committee chairs to serving three terms. Democrats kept that rule in place when they took the majority in 2007 but then decided two years later to get rid of it.
Over the past decade, the caucus has had several more internal debates about term limits that have gone nowhere amid concerns about losing institutional knowledge and stymieing diversity.
The latest iteration of the debate, although far from over, seems much like the previous ones and has some members predicting it won’t result in any changes, even if it might give Democrats who oppose the speakership of their current leader, Nancy Pelosi of California, a compromise reason to allow her to reclaim the gavel.
“I don’t think it’s going to happen,” incoming House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer said of reintroducing term limits.
The Maryland Democrat opposes term limits in all forms, whether for congressional leadership, committee chairs or even the president.
“I’m not for term limits,” he said. “I am for the intellect of the voter, whether it’s my constituency or my colleagues, being able to operate without such a constraint and choose whom they want, when they want for leadership or representation.”
Pelosi told reporters last week that some of the incoming freshmen, as well other members, have shown interest in term limits and that the caucus would debate it.
“I’ve always been sympathetic to the concerns that have been expressed by our members on that subject,” she said.
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Pelosi has been having private conversations with Colorado Rep. Ed Perlmutter about term limits, but those negotiations have yet to produce a specific proposal ready to be presented to the larger Democratic Caucus.
Politico reported Tuesday evening that Pelosi and some of her opponents were on the brink of a tentative agreement on a retroactive three-term limit for top party leaders with the ability to add a fourth term if two-thirds of the Democratic Caucus approves. Sources familiar with the negotiations confirmed this was an accurate description of the current state of play, adding that talks could be wrapped up by the end of the week.
“There are various conversations going on about a path forward,” a Pelosi aide said. “Progress has been made and the conversations are constructive because all involved care about the institution of the House of Representatives.”
Perlmutter is among a group of at least 20 members who’ve said publicly they oppose Pelosi’s bid for speaker — a number that is more than she can afford to lose. While he’s the primary member of that group actively engaging with Pelosi over term limits, he has been updating others in the anti-Pelosi contingent on the talks.
The negotiations faced a setback when the Democratic Caucus decided Tuesday after a brief discussion to hold off on a larger term-limit debate until next year when the freshmen will be present in Washington to participate. There was agreement that the Democrats’ House rules package will not include any mention of term limits and that any changes would be debated in the context of caucus rules.
Exactly when, or even if, another term-limit discussion will take place remains unclear. While the caucus could technically convene a meeting on Jan. 2, it is uncertain if a resolution would be reached before the speaker election and House rules vote the following day, when the 116th Congress convenes.
The timing would appear to limit the strength of any agreement Perlmutter might be able to reach with Pelosi on term limits, since the caucus cannot be bound to make a change to its rules just because Pelosi supports it, although she would have strong influence.
Even if Perlumutter and Pelosi strike some kind of deal, it’s unclear how many other members of the anti-Pelosi faction would be swayed by it. Oregon Rep. Kurt Schrader, for one, said he isn’t interested in such a deal.
“The term-limit discussion, I’m not involved in it at all. Neither is the group as a whole,” he said. “It’s just a few individuals, couple individuals that are interested in this.”
Massachusetts Rep. Seth Moulton, another Pelosi opponent, said he is involved in the term-limit negotiations but declined to elaborate.
Pelosi’s office pushed back on the notion that she has made any offers on term limits in exchange for support for her speaker bid.
Schrader said he doesn’t see the Democratic Caucus ultimately approving term limits and suggested Pelosi could be hurt more than helped by backing them.
“The blowback has been significant, as you might imagine,” he said. “So I’m anticipating that we still have the votes to stop her from becoming speaker and having new leadership and new reforms.”
Wisconsin Rep. Ron Kind, another Pelosi opponent, said he has been an advocate for term limits for quite some time “just to keep the blood circulating in this caucus.”
“This is the proverbial pressure on the balloon. You push one end and you get a bubble on the other end,” he said. “There’s mounting resistance already.”
Although Kind supports term limits, he does not seem likely to change his mind about opposing Pelosi over that issue. He feels the time is ripe for a leadership change given that the next two years with divided government are not expected to produce much in the way of major legislative initiatives and will be focused mostly on oversight.
“Then you get into 2020 and the presidential is going to overwhelm everything,” he said. “And so I would argue, this is the perfect time for us to be transitioning with a new generation of our leadership for our caucus and our country, rather than just staying with the status quo.”
Notably, Perlmutter was the only member to speak up in favor of term limits during the caucus discussion Tuesday, while a handful of members spoke out against it, according to lawmakers and aides present.
Few members appear to be in the loop on the specifics of what Perlmutter and Pelosi have been discussing. Even Hoyer said she’s not kept him apprised of those negotiations.
“She’s not negotiating for me,” he said.
Incoming Majority Whip James E. Clyburn of South Carolina, who opposes term limits for both elected leaders and committee chairs, said Pelosi has not talked to him about it either. Several other members of the Congressional Black Caucus have also voiced their opposition.
CBC Chairman Cedric L. Richmond called term limits “a bad idea,” saying he believes most of the caucus feels the same way though it has yet to take a position.
“We are clueless to take this up now when we are in the majority. We have so much work to do,” said California Rep. Karen Bass, who was recently elected to succeed Richmond as CBC chair for the next Congress. “That needs to be our priority. We don’t need to take up an issue that’s going to cause us to have conflict between each other.”
The term-limit topic is so contentious that most members when asked about it have avoided taking a position. Many say that they haven’t yet seen a plan or that they want to wait for the full caucus debate to pick a side.
“I don’t know if there’s an actual proposal. If there is, I haven’t seen one,” said Rhode Island Rep. David Cicilline, who chairs the caucus’s messaging arm. “I do think there is a tremendous interest in the caucus in creating more opportunities for our very talented members. And I think that’s the goal here.”
Cicilline noted there are a lot of ways to accomplish that, citing decisions that were made in 2016 to expand the leadership team and to add vice ranking member posts on each standing committee.
Those types of changes could end up being the compromise solution again.
“When talented people come to Congress and want more opportunity to take on greater responsibility and to engage in leadership responsibilities, that’s a good thing for our caucus and a good thing for our country,” Cicilline said. “So I think we ought to be considering any ideas that people present that will allow that to happen.”