Pelosi Strikes a Blow for Mediocrity

Say what you will about the 12 years of Republican rule in the U.S House, but the G.O.P. got at least one thing right: term limits for committee chairmen.

The same can’t be said of Nancy Pelosi and her fellow Democrats, who, after surprisingly keeping the limits on the books last Congress, are now set to do away with them. Apparently, a robust majority that should be safe for at least a few cycles has satisfied Democrats that the coast is clear to go back to their old tricks.

It’s hard to remember just how different the atmosphere was on Capitol Hill when the Republicans stormed to power in the House in 1994, ending four decades of uninterrupted Democratic supremacy. Until the very end, no one had thought the outcome even possible, so entrenched was the permanent Democratic majority.

That entrenchment had given rise to culture of arrogance and dysfunction, one epitomized by the autocratic old bulls who’d grab hold of committee gavels around the time of their 70th birthday and not let go until rigor mortis set in. Hailing from safe districts and protected by the seniority system, they answered to no one—not the speaker, not their fellow committee members and certainly not the voters. Their only qualification: They’d been around the longest.

As members of a helpless minority, Republicans in particular chafed under the arbitrary rule of these committee chairmen (although plenty of reform-minded Democrats shared their frustrations), so it wasn’t at all surprising that, in one of there first acts of business in January 1995, they imposed a six-year (three-term) limit on all gavel-holders. The fact that no Republican member had ever experienced the elevated stature that comes with running a committee—especially an exclusive one, like Rules or Ways and Means—made it easier to forge consensus.

The legacy of the Republican revolution, of course, is one of failure—a band of reformers who, in effect, became everything they’d once opposed. Where the Democratic majority gave us Jim Wright, Tony Coehlo and Dan Rostenkowski, the Republicans turned around and produced Tom DeLay, Duke Cunningham and Jack Abramoff. But through it all, at least the G.O.P. stayed true to its term-limits pledge, which prevented individual members from claiming committees as their own personal property.

Just consider the chairmanship of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, one of the most powerful perches in Congress and the one Rostenkowski enjoyed for more than a decade, until he was indicted on corruption charges in 1994. When the G.O.P. took power, 66-year-old Bill Archer, a Texan who’d just been elected to his 13th term, was in line for the gavel, thanks to seniority.

With his gavel, Archer emerged as a premier power player in Washington. But rules were rules: When his three terms were due to expire, Archer opted to leave the House in 2000, choosing retirement over life in Congress without all that prestige. Rest assured, if there hadn’t been term limits (and if the G.O.P. hadn’t ultimately lost the House), Archer, now 80, would still be running Ways and Means, as obstinate and entrenched as any of the old Democratic bulls had been. Term limits also forced the insufferable Bill Thomas, whose haughty demeanor and short temper made him a natural tyrant, out the door in 2006 (although that year’s election results, as it turned out, would also have deprived him of his gavel).

This isn’t to suggest that term limits made the Republican House a model of functional government. Like any group that enjoys too much power for too long, the G.O.P. majority all too often ignored, excused or even covered up the sins of its own members.

And in the Bush years, the House G.O.P. leadership essentially farmed out its role to the White House, turning Congress into a rubber stamp and abdicating its responsibility to ask questions of the executive branch. At the very least, though, the G.O.P.’s insistence of term limits enshrined a very basic but important principle: that no individual member is bigger than the committee he sits on.

When Democrats returned to power in 2007, it seemed like this principle would be upheld. Some of the most senior Democrats in the House, the likes of Charlie Rangel and John Conyers, urged their party’s leader to do away with the limits, but—very quietly—she stuck with them.

At the time, it seemed like Pelosi saw the wisdom of the limits. First elected in 1987, she’d seen how chairmen-for-life could gum up the system and sap a speaker of his (or her) power. But now we know better. This week, the House will vote on a series of rules changes drawn up with Pelosi’s approval. The outcome seems preordained: Term limits will be gone. Clearly, Pelosi was just biding her time two years ago, not wanting any nasty headlines to spoil her new majority’s honeymoon.

The average age of the Democratic chairmen is now 67.5 years. The oldest is Conyers of Judiciary, who is 79 (he’s got Louise Slaughter of Rules beat by a few months). Only two are under 60, Nydia Velazquez of Small Business (53) and Bart Gordon (59) of the Science Committee. Without term limits, as assuming a sustained Democratic majority, that average age only figures to grow.

Officially, Pelosi is doing this because term limits created a culture of competition, with members essentially campaigning for gavels by raising money and doling it out to their colleagues. The real reason may have more to do with last month’s intra-party war over the chairmanship of the Energy And Commerce Committee, in which Pelosi ally Henry Waxman, age 68, unseated 82-year-old John Dingell, the longest-serving House member.

That outcome unnerved many veteran Democrats, who have long pledged fealty to the seniority system, believing it would one day benefit them. Maybe Pelosi quietly assured them that, if they went along with axing Dingell, she’d kill term limits. Or maybe she’s just doing it now to reassure them. Or maybe they saw it coming all along.

No matter what, it’s a good day for the Rangels and Conyers of the House—and a bad day for any Democrat hoping to make a lasting mark before his or her 75th birthday.