Democrats Abandoning Seniority as Black Lawmakers Become Senior Members

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On the heels of a disappointing mid-term election in which Republicans again gained a number of new seats in the legislature, the Democrats appear to be irretrievably lost.  If the criticism offered by a number of commentators is correct, Democrats didn’t fare well during the last election because they ignored a significant portion of their base– and then paid the price.

Interestingly, Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic Leader, sent a letter to party lawmakers on Monday asking for their support in having Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA) become the ranking Democrat of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.  If you’re starting to get bored, hold on.  You need to understand this.

The problem is that Rep. Eshoo is not first in line for the job according to seniority.  She’s actually third– behind Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ) and Bobby Rush (D-IL).   Rush, though, is not running for the ranking member slot.

Pelosi’s rationale for asking the other members of Congress to ignore member seniority sent ripples throughout the Congressional Black Caucus and caused the members to schedule a luncheon meeting to discuss just what this means.

Right now, seven members of the Congressional Black Caucus are set to serve as ranking members on Committees for the 114th Congress.  Pelosi’s letter comes at a time when the Black Caucus is probably the most powerful it has been in its history.  There is power in the chairmanship of major committees.

Had the party stayed true to its stated mission over the past few election cycles, voter apathy might not have returned, and there would possibly be at least six Black Caucus members serving as Committee Chairs today.  But the inconsistent message of the party evidenced in its unwillingness to spend money to reach and cater to all of its constituency, has resulted in a loss of over 70 House seats in three cycles.   Democrats simply have a hard time with spending money at election time with black business.  Why not?  Because the black vote is largely taken for granted.

Is money the only reason for this sad state of affairs?  No, but not seeing the need to reach out to black voters is symptomatic of a larger problem inside the party that must be addressed.  This makes ranking positions– right now– a very important thing inside the party.

Corrine Brown (D-FL) is one of the seven legislators set to become ranking members for the next two years.  The others are Reps. John Conyers (D-MI), Maxine Waters (D-CA), Elijah Cummings (D-MD), Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), Bobby Scott (D-VA) and Bennie Thompson (D-MS).  There are others who would be “next in line” in the normal flow of seniority, but apparently not if Pelosi has her way.

Is the new Pelosi policy– that seniority is just a “consideration not a determination”– some kind of political payback for blacks not showing up at the polls?  If so, it represents a real disconnect from the reality that black voters wake up in every day.  Blaming the victims of a long-time Democratic policy of taking black voters for granted is disingenuous at best.

Pelosi says the seniority policy has never been cast in stone, and points out that she supported former Black Caucus member Ron Dellums to be Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee even though he was not the most senior member of the Committee at the time.  But that’s as far as the comparison goes.  The legislator who was next in line was a Dixiecrat whose racial attitudes at the time put him clearly out of step with the party’s public point of view.  That is not what is happening here.

Rep. Tim Walz (D-MN), who is last in seniority on the Veterans Affairs Committee, is challenging Rep. Corrine Brown (D-FL) who is first, for the spot of ranking member.  If the new Pelosi policy permits it, the damage to the Democratic Party will be great.  Democrats ought to remember that before President Roosevelt emabrked on a policy of inclusion to heal the nation after the first world war, black folk were predominantly Republican, since that was the party of “The Great Emancipator” Abraham Lincoln.

Alliances with other segments of the Democratic Party base are already being structured.

We do not know today what the CBC gathering was convened to accomplish, but the timing of the seniority shift will not be missed.  It will be interesting to see what they decide to do about this very public slap in the face.


Text of Pelosi’s letter to Democratic Members and Members-Elect of the 114th Congress:

November 11, 2014

Dear Democratic Colleague,

Once again, I am writing to enthusiastically endorse Anna Eshoo for the position of Ranking Member of the Energy and Commerce Committee.  Anna has been the driving force in the Congress behind our Innovation Agenda, our initiative to strengthen our global competitiveness, to create good paying jobs here at home, and to build an economy that works for everyone. I am encouraged by the broad support that Anna has across our Caucus.

I have been asked by a number of the freshmen about my views concerning how our Caucus has handled the issue of seniority over the years.  My first experience with the seniority issue was when I had the privilege to vote for Ron Dellums to be the first African American to chair the House Armed Services Committee. Chairman Dellums was not the most senior Member when he ascended to the Chairmanship.

And now, it is important to note our Caucus has voted in to Chair or Ranking Member positions Members who are not the more senior on their respective committees, including Henry Waxman, Energy and Commerce; Nita Lowey, Appropriations; Adam Smith, Armed Services; Elijah Cummings, Oversight and Government Reform; and Eliot Engel, Foreign Affairs.

In each of these elections there was enormous respect for the senior Member, but our colleagues viewed seniority as a consideration not a determination.

Congratulations on your election to the 114th Congress. Thank you for your leadership and your friendship.

best regards,