ChrisWeigant.com

Senate Democrats Debate Changing Seniority Rules

[ Posted Tuesday, December 1st, 2020 – 16:48 UTC ]

There's a Senate leadership battle going on in the Democratic caucus right now, but there's also a bigger issue at stake than just who gets to lead Democrats on the Judiciary Committee next year. The bigger reform Senate Democrats are now considering is whether they should adopt new rules to fundamentally change their leadership structure, to lessen the weight of seniority in office.

The specific committee leadership battle in question is being waged because Dianne Feinstein finally became convinced, after the most-recent Supreme Court justice confirmation hearings, that she had outstayed her welcome as the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee. Her move was applauded by many Democrats, it's worth noting.

But with DiFi stepping down, the top committee spot will open up. Normally, this would automatically go to the next-most-senior Democrat on the committee, which in this case would be Dick Durbin. However, another committee member, Sheldon Whitehouse, is making a bid for the job as well.

Younger progressives are more in favor of Whitehouse getting the job, because they see him as much more aggressive in standing up to the Republicans on the committee. Durbin is seen as too polite and too steeped in a view of Senate comity that is outdated. Whitehouse is seen as feistier and more combative, which is just what progressives think Democrats need right now.

Whitehouse has two complaints about Durbin being appointed as the "ranking minority member" of the committee -- assuming the Republicans hold at least one of the Georgia seats in January's runoff. If the Democrats actually do beat expectations and flip both Georgia Senate seats, then the position becomes even more important, because with Democrats in control, the ranking Democrat will become the committee's actual chairman and thus gain full control of the committee.

Whitehouse's first complaint is that Durbin would both lead a committee as well as being the Democratic whip (the second-highest party leadership position in the whole chamber, behind the minority leader). This has happened before in the past, so there is indeed precedent for such an arrangement. But it would also limit by one the available leadership positions for all Democratic senators, which is how this objection is couched. Why not provide more people opportunities for leadership, to allow for some new blood?

The second complaint is broader, but also stresses the "new blood" aspect. Committee chairs and ranking members and all the rest of the leadership structure in the Senate -- for Democrats -- is incredibly weighted towards seniority. "Seniority" has nothing to do with age, it is a measure of how long each senator has served in the Senate. And it is very important.

For instance, although they both won their Senate seats for the first time in the 2020 election, Mark Kelly will be more senior than John Hickenlooper. Kelly won a special election for the seat, because it was being filled by an appointee (the seat initially opened up after the death of John McCain). Special elections have an interesting consequence, because Kelly will be sworn in tomorrow. The seat is filled by the winner as soon as the results are certified, in other words. Hickenlooper, on the other hand, will have to wait to be sworn in until the third of January, the normal date the new Congress begins. But if Democrats win either of the Georgia Senate races (which will take place a few days after that), then Hickenlooper will have more seniority than either of them. Even a matter of a few days controls your ranking in the list.

Judging things on seniority means a lot of new senators essentially have no (or very little) power for years. It may take a long time to even gain a seat on one of the important committees, and much longer for a leadership position to open up. The proof of this is Durbin himself, who has been in the Senate since 1997 and has not yet chaired a committee in all that time. The partisan majority/minority leader and whip positions are not so heavily based on seniority, and initially Durbin fought with Chuck Schumer over the top job (when it opened up, after Harry Reid's retirement). Durbin lost this fight in the end, so he had to be satisfied with remaining as the party's whip. But Durbin's case merely proves how hard it is to move up in the power structure of the Senate. It took him 23 years to rise to possibly gaining control of an important committee -- and he was only able to do even that because the most-senior Democrat was pressured into voluntarily stepping down.

Some Democrats agree that it is time to revisit the rules. After all, they point out, Republicans have already done so. Years ago, they instituted term limits for all committee leadership positions, meaning they now rotate people in and out much quicker than the Democrats. As one second-term Democrat put it:

"We have a lot of new talent in our caucus and we need to find an equitable and fair way to make sure that that talent is leveraged and that people don't have to serve for 12 or 18 years before they get in positions where they can really make a difference," said Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), who is in his second term. "This is a conversation whose time has come."

The problem, however, is that some see Whitehouse as making a public bid for the Judiciary job by using the idea of reform just to advance his own position. Durbin flat-out made this accusation in an interview today, in fact: "As I understand it, I am the object of [Senator Sheldon Whitehouse's] reform. For himself." Other Democratic senators have expressed their own discomfort at (as one put it) "cherry-picking" new rules to benefit one individual senator.

This might mean that Whitehouse won't get the job. It'll be a caucus vote that determines rule changes, and the party might just decide to postpone voting in such fundamental changes until later -- after Durbin secures the party's Judiciary leadership under the current rules, denying Whitehouse's bid.

But no matter which man wins the job in the end, the idea of reforming Senate Democratic leadership rules is bigger than this one personal power struggle. It may be hard for Democrats to admit, but the Republicans are actually the ones who have made much more progress on allowing less-senior members to rise through their ranks. Maybe it wouldn't be such a bad idea to take a look at instituting new rules like term limits for committee chairs, in other words. That would allow a lot more "churn" throughout all of these committees, and would allow new senators the chance to have real influence a lot earlier than how it now works. Such changes seem not only eminently reasonable, but downright overdue. Because if such changes had been made previously, then Dianne Feinstein would not have outstayed her welcome at the top of a powerful committee in the first place.

-- Chris Weigant

 

Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant

 

20 Comments on “Senate Democrats Debate Changing Seniority Rules”

  1. [1] 
    SF Bear wrote:

    I am all for churning. I love hand churned ice cream on my pie!

  2. [2] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Personally, I'd be happy with Durbin or Whitehouse taking on the job of top Dem on the Judiciary committee. But, I'd rather see either one as the chairman so ...

    Let's go Democrats and win those Georgia senate seats!

  3. [3] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    I'm all for the perks of seniority in the US senate, for the record.

  4. [4] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    I've never been much of a fan of terms limits, either.

  5. [5] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Chris,

    It may be hard for Democrats to admit, but the Republicans are actually the ones who have made much more progress on allowing less-senior members to rise through their ranks.

    And, far from progress, this has turned out to be the veritable joke that some had most surely predicted.

  6. [6] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Chris,

    That would allow a lot more "churn" throughout all of these committees, and would allow new senators the chance to have real influence a lot earlier than how it now works.

    Why do you think it would be a good idea for new senators to have more influence earlier in their senate careers? Is it because you're a fan of term limits, too? :)

  7. [7] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    SF Bear,

    I am all for churning. I love hand churned ice cream on my pie!

    I'm all for that, too. Just as long as you are the one doing all the churning. Heh.

  8. [8] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    @sfbear[1],

    now you're speaking my language!

  9. [9] 
    andygaus wrote:

    It would be good to have more people rotating in and out of chairmanships. The effective chairman who leaves their post after doing a good job still maintains a lot of their influence, and a new person gets to show their strength. Conversely, whenever any person stays in a position long enough to think of it as "my office" or "my seat," the seeds of some kind of deterioration have been sown, whether it's corruption or complacency.

  10. [10] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    But, that's not always the case.

  11. [11] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    It could be that I'm living in the past.

  12. [12] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Tom Friedman had a phone interview with Biden today and here is his column about it ...

    https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/02/opinion/biden-interview-mcconnell-china-iran.html?action=click&module=Opinion&pgtype=Homepage

  13. [13] 
    Kick wrote:

    CW: Younger progressives are more in favor of Whitehouse getting the job, because they see him as much more aggressive in standing up to the Republicans on the committee.

    I agree with the progressives on this particular issue. Might as well keep Feinstein if Durbin is her replacement.

  14. [14] 
    Mezzomamma wrote:

    What, I wonder, is the magic number of years between 'time to go' and 'not enough experience'? Term limits need to allow for developing in the job, without blocking others or becoming stale. And of course, some are more effective than others and perhaps deserve a longer time. A mentoring system for newcomers would be good as well, perhaps moving them around between committees, so they get to know the ropes while still having fresh ideas.

  15. [15] 
    Don Harris wrote:

    "If these changes had been made previously, then Dianne Feinstein would not have outstayed her welcome at the top of a powerful committee in the first place."

    That would explain why these changes were not made previously. Standard operating procedure for the Deathocrats.

    Gosh, if the Deathocrats had previously made the change to their SOP of financing their campaigns with big money then Biden, Harris, Pelosi, Schumer, Feinstein, etc. would not have outstayed their welcome at the top of a corrupt half of the big money two party deception.

    Any new and improved packaging still contains the same defective bullshit.

    Wake up. Wise up. Rise up.

    Get Real.

  16. [16] 
    SF Bear wrote:

    Another approach to this problem that avoids some of the issues with term limits. Is a system that has worked well for a number of boards I have been member of, and that is; to have the Chair term of one year and each year the Members of that committee elect a Chair. There is no limit to how often an individual can be elected Chair but when the members who understand the dynamics of that body better than anyone else no longer have confidence in that person they simply select a new one. This allows the body to churn just enough to have a nice uniform consistency without turning into hard butter.

  17. [17] 
    ListenWhenYouHear wrote:

    I used to think that term limits were needed in politics, but not anymore. I would rather have a politician who views their job as a career than a politician that views being in office as a spring board into what they truly want to become. Plus, if the politician’s constituents are happy with the individual representing them, who are we to say that they are wrong to elect the candidate that they want?

    I agree that Democrats need to mix up how they determine their seniority positions. If Albert Einstein was just elected to the Senate, do we really think it’s in our best interest to have the person elected because they have famous relatives who served a century ago should have seniority over Einstein on the Space and Science Committee?

  18. [18] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    andygaus,

    to have the Chair term of one year and each year the Members of that committee elect a Chair.

    There aren't enough elections in your country already? I mean, how often do senators have to run for their seat, let alone their chairmanship. They'd be running for something all the time, no?

    Your idea would be a lot better if the chair had a six year term unless re-elected by his fellow membera or ousted sooner by his constituents.

  19. [19] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    But, I still don't like term limits for elected office.

  20. [20] 
    Kick wrote:

    Don Harris
    15

    That would explain why these changes were not made previously. Standard operating procedure for the Deathocrats.

    Said the troll whose "standard operating procedure" is an outdated and unchanged website and commentary that never changes.

    Gosh, if the Deathocrats had previously made the change to their SOP of financing their campaigns with big money then Biden, Harris, Pelosi, Schumer, Feinstein, etc. would not have outstayed their welcome at the top of a corrupt half of the big money two party deception.

    Gosh, if the troll Death Harris had previously made the change to his SOP bullshit website and lame old/same old stale commentary... yawn... outstayed his welcome.

    Any new and improved packaging still contains the same defective bullshit.

    That certainly explains your outdated website.

    Wake up. Wise up. Rise up.

    Jerk off. Jerk off. Jerk off.

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