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House Democratic Majority Is Already Shooting Itself in the Foot

Before even taking over as speaker, Pelosi is leaning toward subjecting committee chairs to term limits. That would be a big mistake.

House Democratic Majority Is Already Shooting Itself in the Foot

Before even taking over as speaker, Pelosi is leaning toward subjecting committee chairs to term limits. That would be a big mistake.

It looked good on paper.

Photographer: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Photographer: Alex Wong/Getty Images

House Democrats are off to a surprisingly bad start.

They’ve already spent a lot of time and energy stabilizing their leadership. That really shouldn’t have been a problem: They have, in Nancy Pelosi, a perfectly good option for speaker of the House. Instead, they’ve complicated things by expanding their bloated leadership team. Passing out titles does little to satisfy the real and legitimate concerns about centralization of power within the House, or the concerns about an aging and stagnant group of party leaders.

Worse is that Pelosi,  who’s still trying to nail down the votes she needs for the speaker floor vote, may be leaning toward supporting committee-chair term limits. That would be a serious mistake by her and the members who are agitating for the change.

Very simply: Committee-chair term limits are a disaster. They negate the slow build-up of expertise among members (and even staff) that allows committees to grow truly powerful. The 1995-2006 and 2011-2018 Republican-controlled Houses used the device. The result was that policy making by the committees atrophied, and was given over to the party leadership, or lobbyists, or sometimes no one at all. Or as Josh Huder puts it, committee term limits go against everything that congressional reformers have been advocating:

Instead, junior members, including the newly elected group, should be demanding stronger subcommittees, of the kind that existed in the 1970s through 1994. They allow the classic House trade-off: significant influence over a small number of things in exchange for going along on everything else. That’s a big deal because the alternative for lawmakers is to be nothing more than a vote for the party program while they wait for a chance to actually have influence. As Congress scholar Burdett Loomis recalls: That’s “definitely one lesson from Class of 1974 Democrats. They exercised substantial power in first term, and lots more in 2nd and 3rd terms through subcommittees.”

Power in the House isn’t a zero-sum game. Building House capacity -- the ability to make policy -- makes the entire chamber more capable of solving problems, and better able to work for individual members and their constituents: It makes the House more powerful.

That’s exactly what the new majority should want. It would be good for individual members, good for the Democratic Party, and good for the nation. It would be disappointing if the Democrats in control decide to emulate the failed governing style of Republicans under Speakers Newt Gingrich and Paul Ryan. 

    This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net

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