Change on the Horizon for House Democrats

by Stuart Rothenberg February 16, 2011 · 8:36 AM EST

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) will celebrate her 71st birthday next month. House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) will be 72 in June. And Assistant Leader James Clyburn (D-S.C.) turns 71 in July.

The young buck of the Democratic Party’s House leadership is Democratic Caucus Chairman John Larson (Conn.), who will turn 63 in July.

By contrast, the oldest member of the House Republican leadership, Speaker John Boehner, is younger than any of those Democrats. The Ohioan turned 61 just after his party reclaimed the House majority.

The next two highest-ranking members of the GOP House leadership are young enough to be the children of Pelosi, Hoyer or Clyburn. Majority Leader Eric Cantor (Va.) will be 48 in June, while Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) turned 46 last month.

House Republican Conference Chairman Jeb Hensarling (Texas), the second-oldest in the Republican leadership, will be 54 in May.

Below the Democrats’ top party leaders is another group of aged leaders: ranking members on key House committees.

House Energy and Commerce ranking member Henry Waxman (Calif.) will turn 72 in September. Ways and Means ranking member Sander Levin (Mich.) will turn 80 in September. And the ranking member on Appropriations, Rep. Norm Dicks (Wash.), just turned 70.

In contrast, Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) and Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) will each turn 58 this year. Only Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), who turned 73 in December, is a member of the Pelosi-Hoyer-Clyburn-Waxman-Levin-Dicks demographic.

There isn’t anything inherently wrong with having a leadership team that is as old as the Democrats’ team. Pelosi and Hoyer in particular look much younger than they are, and most of the senior Democrats just mentioned apparently continue to have the energy of much younger people.

Still, it would be silly to dismiss the importance of the Democratic leaders’ ages. Most 70-year-olds approach problems differently than people in their 40s or 50s, and someone born around 1940 who grew up when the New Deal Coalition and New Deal assumptions were still in full flower, has very different memories and expectations from someone born in the 1960s.

Since nobody (not even columnists) can go on forever, House Democrats have to be starting to think about their possible next generation of leaders.

Younger Members of Congress will be increasingly impatient about the logjam at the top, and if Democrats are unable to win back the House this time, there is likely to be increasing pressure within the party’s Caucus for new leadership.

At least three “younger” Democrats seem poised to move up the ladder when vacancies open up in the party’s leadership: Democratic Caucus Vice Chairman Xavier Becerra (Calif.), Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel (N.Y.) and Budget ranking member Chris Van Hollen, who served as DCCC chairman for the two previous election cycles.

Becerra just turned 53. Israel will be 53 in May. And Van Hollen turned 52 in January. Like Pelosi, all have made their marks as political operatives, not primarily as policy wonks. That could change some for Van Hollen, who lost a game of musical chairs when none of the more senior party leaders opted for retirement. But the Maryland Congressman became the ranking member on the prestigious Budget Committee as a thank you for taking one for the team.

Other ambitious and able House Democrats ought to be on any list of potential players.

Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, 44, is politically savvy and a frequent television guest, and she is one of the Democrats’ Chief Deputy Whips. She also serves as a Democratic National Committee vice chairwoman.

But Wasserman Schultz’s ambition — she is sometimes accused of being a “title collector” and was bitter when she was not selected by her party’s leader to chair the DCCC — has made her something of a polarizing figure.

New York Rep. Joe Crowley, 48, can’t be ignored. Although he lost a fight for Democratic Caucus vice chairman to Connecticut Rep. John Larson in 2006 and, according to one smart observer, “really misplayed his leadership hand initially,” Crowley seems to have learned the right lessons and certainly could be a factor in future leadership contests.

As far as freshmen, insiders finger Rep. Ted Deutch (Fla.), 44, and Rep. Gary Peters (Mich.), 52, as potential leadership material, though with the important caveat that redistricting could jeopardize Peters’ House career.

A handful of African-Americans in the House seem most likely to move up the party ladder, with freshman Rep. Karen Bass, 57, who served as Speaker of the California Assembly, and Rep. Keith Ellison (Minn.), 47, the most obvious names.

Interestingly, Bass and Ellison would likely rank far down the list of potential leaders had three highly regarded African-American Democrats chosen to remain in the House rather than seek higher office. But the exits of Rep. Harold Ford Jr. (Tenn.) in 2006 and Reps. Kendrick Meek (Fla.) and Artur Davis (Ala.) last year created an opening for others.

It’s impossible to know when the Democratic leadership logjam will start to break up. But when it does, there is sure to be a scramble among the “next generation” of ambitious Democrats who have been waiting for an opportunity to show their stuff.