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House Democrats should adopt leadership term limits

The party’s top leaders in Congress are all in their 80s.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, House Majority Whip James Clyburn, left, and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer spoke with reporters in 2021. All three are age 82 or older.Oliver Contreras/NYT

US Representative Adam Schiff recently said the quiet part out loud: For Democrats in the House of Representatives, entrenchment has become a problem.

“We need to do more to rapidly elevate people to positions of leadership,” Schiff told Punchbowl News at an event at the Texas Tribune Festival in Austin, endorsing the controversial idea that the party should limit the terms of committee chairs to make sure there are regular infusions of fresh blood in the top ranks of the party.

The California Democrat, who himself chairs the powerful House Intelligence Committee, publicly backed an idea slowly gaining steam among the Democratic rank and file.


Schiff, for his part, has his own reasons for wanting more turnover at the top positions within the caucus — something that the Republican House caucus has in place but that has met resistance among Democratic leaders. He is mulling a run for a top leadership position himself, Politico reports.

But despite his skin in the game, his idea is a good one: Limiting both the number of terms that House members of either party can serve at the helm and in the second-highest post of committees, as well as the number of terms the top leaders in each caucus serve, is a good idea.

And it’s one that is gaining enough momentum that, in the event Democrats lose their majority in the House in November, is likely to threaten Pelosi’s and other leaders’ posts. A CNN report, citing interviews with dozens of members, suggests that a loss of House control would place enormous internal pressure on Pelosi and other leaders to step down.

But Democrats should formally adopt a leadership term limit rule, regardless of the outcome of the midterm elections.

One should look no farther than at the current state of the Democratic caucus to understand why its leadership is so often at odds with several of the active and increasingly vocal blocs within its ranks: Speaker Nancy Pelosi, as well as those in the second and third top leadership posts — Majority Leader Representative Steny Hoyer of Maryland and Majority Whip Representative James Clyburn of South Carolina — are age 82 or older. None has ruled out another leadership run — despite Pelosi’s promise in 2018 to step down from the top spot no later than the end of this year.


That promise came after a bold move in 2018 by a group of Democrats, led by Representative Ed Perlmutter of Colorado and joined by more than a dozen others including Bay State Representative Seth Moulton, calling for Pelosi to step down to make way for new leadership.

As expected, Pelosi ultimately squashed that rebellion to keep her seat. But the group did score a minor victory — a pledge from Pelosi that she and other leaders would cap their terms at no more than four more years. The rule did not have the votes at the time to be formally adopted, but the public assurance seemed, at the time, to be enough.

Clearly it wasn’t. Neither Pelosi, Hoyer, nor Clyburn have expressed any interest in stepping down. Quite the opposite.

Pelosi has remained coy when asked about her future plans, saying only that she is focused on midterm elections. Meanwhile, not only have Hoyer and Clyburn not aired plans to step down from their posts, both are interested in replacing Pelosi if she does, according to the CNN report.


This is despite a deep bench of well-known, ambitious, and diverse members eagerly awaiting a shot to ascend, which include those already in lower ranking leadership positions like Democratic Caucus Chair Hakeem Jeffries of New York and Assistant Speaker Katherine Clark of Massachusetts. Others seeking to elevate include Schiff, Representative Pete Aguilar of California and Representative Pramila Jayapal of Washington.

One need not have a view on how any of these particular candidates would fare in leadership positions to understand that a process that allows fresh new ideas and perspectives that better align with the constituencies across a broader swath of the nation is a better one — particularly for a party that often is stymied by its own conflicts between leaders who have been in their positions for decades and those who come up the ranks behind them.

Democrats may have the decision made for them should they lose House control. Republicans have floated the idea of imposing their committee chair term limits on Democrats as well, should that party gain control of the House after the midterms.

But Democrats should beat them to the punch and pass a rule limiting themselves. Good ideas, regardless of the motivation, are still good ideas.

Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.