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Nancy Pelosi’s opponents want term limits for House committee chairs. She might be open to it.

Why term limits could become the next big fight within the House Democratic caucus.

Nancy Pelosi And New House Leadership Hold Press Conference At The Capitol
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and House Minority Whip Steny Hoyser pose with members of the new House Democratic leadership team for a formal portrait at the US Capitol.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

Nancy Pelosi is signaling she is open to letting less senior Congress members take charge of House committees — a key ask from some of her detractors.

Pelosi said she’s open to a conversation about term limits for committee chairs, a rule House Republicans have but Democrats do not. The Democratic leader added she’s “sympathetic” to the concerns of incoming freshmen and younger members during a Tuesday press conference. Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA) — the incoming chair of the Rules Committee — has also heard from new and current members who want term limits put in place.

But Pelosi was clear in her press conference: The will of the Democratic caucus will decide the issue.

“That’s a matter before for the caucus,” she said on Thursday. “I’ve always been sympathetic to the concerns that have been expressed by the members of our caucus on that subject. Actually, I tried to do that when I became speaker in ’07, but the caucus did not support that.”

House Democrats have long used a system that rewards seniority in the caucus — placing some members who have served the longest on plum committees. Imposing term limits on chairs could draw a backlash from some of Pelosi’s most reliable bases of support, the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. The lack of term limits means many committee members in safely Democratic districts get rewarded because they have more chance of getting reelected and staying for years.

Some of her top lieutenants have voiced opposition to the idea.

The debate about term limits typically resurfaces at the start of every Congress, but it’s taking on a prescient tone as a number of young freshmen members calling for leadership change have arrived on Capitol Hill, and Pelosi is trying to shore up support for her bid for speaker.

Though the caucus overwhelmingly nominated her, she still needs a few more votes to secure the speakership on January 3. The Huffington Post first reported that Pelosi was considering the change during a meeting with Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO) in exchange for his vote. Perlmutter has previously said he will not support her for speaker.

But Pelosi’s spokesperson Drew Hammill strongly pushed back on that characterization.

“No such offer was made,” Hammill said. “This debate has been occurring in the caucus for years and has nothing to do with her nomination for speaker. Reports to the contrary are false.”

No matter what, Democrats will have to address the issue at the start of the next Congress; it is in the current rules package left by Republicans, and it will be up to Democrats to decide whether to keep term limits in or strip them out.

Why Democrats don’t have term limits

Term limits are one of the more noticeable differences between House Democrat and House Republicans. Republicans have imposed three-term limits for their committee chairs since 1992. And Republicans added the measure to full House rules in 1995, according to the Brookings Institution.

That means that rather than voting to add term limits, Democrats will actually be voting on whether to take them out of the rules package. They did this when they were in the majority in 2009, axing six-year term limits on chairs that Republican lawmakers had proposed. But some Democrats thought Republicans had come up with a better system to get new blood and new ideas cycling throughout the hierarchy of the House.

“A number of people would say Republicans have struck a better formula for advancement,” former Democratic Caucus Chair John Larson told Politico back in 2015. “And I don’t think it’s a bad thing for leadership at all. I mean, it’s verboten to say it, but it’s true and I think even our current leaders would recognize it, all of whom I support.”

The voices in favor of not having term limits are powerful ones in the Democratic caucus; the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus have long been supportive of the seniority-based system, which they argue helps elevate minority representatives to positions of power.

These are two important bases of support for Pelosi, and if the Democratic leader took a position in favor of term limits, it could spark a backlash among more senior members. At the same time, Pelosi coming out in favor of term limits could give her a huge boost among the many young members who are currently on the record opposing her.

The debate over term limits goes to the heart of the main debate among House Democrats right now: what to do about the deep generational divide at the top of Democratic leadership and the new voices in the caucus hungry for change.

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