Why Term Limits Are Such a Thorny Issue for Nancy Pelosi

There’s a reason this is a subject she’s tried to ignore.

U.S. House Minority Leader Rep. Nancy Pelosi speaks during her weekly news conference on Thursday.
U.S. House Minority Leader Rep. Nancy Pelosi speaks during her weekly news conference on Thursday.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

On Wednesday night, HuffPost reported that Nancy Pelosi would be willing to touch what has been a third rail in internal House Democratic politics for the last decade: supporting term limits for committee chairmen. According to HuffPost, Pelosi offered to back the idea in a meeting with Colorado Rep. Ed Perlmutter, one of the “rebels” who’s pledged to not support Pelosi in a speakership vote on the floor, in exchange for his vote.

Many Democratic staffers were shocked to read that Pelosi would put this on the table. It’s a topic she’s kept her distance from since she tried and failed to introduce term limits in 2007. Though House Republicans have maintained a three-term chairmanship limit in their rules since the 1990s, Democrats have not. Minority caucuses among House Democrats, especially the Congressional Black Caucus, have been strongly opposed to the idea. They argue that black members have historically been overlooked in favor of white members for leadership positions, so committee chairmanships have been the main way for black members—especially black women—to accrue power within the caucus. The order for chairmanships is determined by seniority, which advantages many black members representing safe districts.

Drew Hammill, a spokesman for Pelosi, denied the HuffPost story, saying that “no such offer was made” to Perlmutter. Hammill conceded, though, that Pelosi was “sympathetic” to the calls for term limits coming from newer members and incoming freshmen, who worry, reasonably enough, that they’ll have to stick around for decades before reaching any real position of power.

In her weekly press conference Thursday, Pelosi presented the issue as one that the caucus would discuss, and not one that she would have any particular sway in deciding. “That’s a debate for the caucus to have,” she said, “and we will have that.”

A call will have to be made one way or another. As a source close to Pelosi said, “term limits are in the 115th Congress’ rules package and a decision has to be made to keep or remove that provision.” It could be done in the rules package Democrats are putting together for a floor vote on Jan. 3, or it could be done separately some time afterward.

This puts Pelosi—who, despite her public presentation as an innocent bystander on the issue, holds great sway over the final decision—in a tight spot. Backing term limits might endear her to freshmen and newer members, and could help her pick off a holdout or two for the speakership vote. But doing so would enrage committee chairmen, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, and the CBC.

And it’s not just Pelosi feeling her way here. I was surprised earlier on Thursday to get a response from CBC Chairman Cedric Richmond that left the door open to limits. The CBC has historically been a staunch supporter of seniority, he said through a CBC spokeswoman, but added that you could have a seniority system with term limits. In other words, so long as seniority was strictly preserved—i.e., that junior members weren’t allowed to leapfrog past more senior members in rank—term limits could be considered. But that view might not have gone over very well among senior members of the CBC, five of whom are in line for committee chairs in the next Congress, because an hour later I was speaking on the phone with a Cedric Richmond who staunchly opposed the idea.

“From talking to a few of our [CBC] chairmen, or soon-to-be chairmen, the question is, why are the rules always changing once we build significant clout or accomplishments?” he said. Richmond, who will be replaced as CBC chair in the next Congress by California Rep. Karen Bass, said that if House Democrats vote on the change while he’s still chair, “It is something that I would ask the [CBC] to take a position on. And oppose.”

He further argued that there was a “very defined group of people” who would get “the short end of the stick” if term limits were imposed: black women. Both Texas Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson and California Rep. Maxine Waters are in line for committee chairmanships in January, and it’s only been a week since Alabama Rep. Terri Sewell and California Rep. Barbara Lee, the only black women running for competitive leadership spots, lost their races. Feelings are still raw over those losses, and now the thinking is: You want to come for our chairmanships, too?

“Am I skeptical that an African-American woman gets a fair shake at a committee chairmanship if we changed the rules?” Richmond said on the phone. “Absolutely. Because if you want to know what people are going to do in the future, look at what they’ve done in the past. And this caucus has not done a very good job.”

I asked him, then, if Pelosi would lose the CBC’s support if she supported imposing term limits.

“I would not anticipate the leader getting involved one way or another,” he said. “I saw the comments about her being open to it … but open to it and supporting it are two completely different things.”