114th Congress: Plenty of New Faces, but None in Top Party Leadership Posts

Susan Sullivan Lagon | November 12, 2014

There’s an old adage in American politics that campaigns boil down to a choice between one of two simple messages: “It’s time for a change,” or “Stay the course.” Democrats can blame President Obama’s unpopularity, their party’s boom-and-bust turnout, an extraordinarily challenging map of seats to defend in the Senate, the Republicans’ structural advantage in House elections, “dark money” contributions that funded mostly Republicans, or the public’s skepticism about the vigor of the economic recovery, but it’s hard to see how they could interpret the 2014 election results as anything other than the electorate calling for change.  Party leadership elections this week, however, seem destined to stay the course.  After the requisite (and weary) calls for a return to regular order, working across party lines, surmounting the blame game, looking for areas of common ground, tackling the tough issues, etc., those running the 114th Congress will bear a startling resemblance to those who ran the (hyperpolarized, partisan, gridlocked, unproductive) 113th Congress.

For the fifth time in a row, the House will include at least four dozen new faces, and for the third time in a row, most of them will belong to Republicans.  Not so long ago, a party’s decisive defeat at the polls would usher in new leadership at the top, especially if Speakers presided over a change in party control.  In 1994, Speaker Tom Foley joined his fellow Democrats as casualties of the Republican wave, becoming the first seating Speaker to lose his own seat since the mid-19th century.  Just four years later, Newt Gingrich, the architect of the “Republican Revolution” that ousted Democrats from their 40-year majority in the House, resigned after losing five seats and the support of his former colleagues.

But in 2010, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi surprised many Congresswatchers when she was reelected to head her party in the House despite a resounding 63-seat midterm loss that handed control back to the Republicans.  Her argument: She was still the best fundraiser her party had in Congress, and she was convinced that Republicans would overreach, ensuring that their tenure in the majority would be brief.  Apparently the impact of redistricting, the Citizens United ruling, and successive seat losses in 2012 and 2014 have done little to change her mind.  She faces no serious challenge from her long-suffering lieutenant, Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, whose hope of heading his caucus remains elusive.  And once again, James Clyburn of South Carolina will occupy the Assistant Minority Leader post, a post-2010 position created to avoid a divisive battle between the more senior Hoyer and Clyburn, who holds the distinction of being the highest ranking African American in congressional leadership.

Pelosi comes into the 114th as Minority Leader already, but some of her more junior—and younger—colleagues might have hoped that she and some of the old guard would step down from the top of the leadership ladder to allow a few newer (if not new) faces to ascend.  Pelosi and Clyburn are both 74, and Hoyer is 75.  Privately, some Democrats on those lower rungs are increasingly frustrated.  In relative terms, they are junior, but they’ve served in Congress for long enough to have the requisite experience.  Notably, they have served longer than many of their Republican counterparts already serving in top leadership spots.  For example, next-in-line Xavier Becerra is 56 and will be starting his 12th term; Joe Crowley is 52, beginning his 9th term; Steve Israel is 56 entering his 8th term, and Debbie Wasserman-Schultz is 48 as she embarks on her 6th term.  The lack of room to advance is further compounded because Democrats don’t follow the practice of limiting how long their members may serve as chairs or ranking members on committees, so new leadership opportunities are relatively scarce unless a sitting member (finally) retires.

On the Republican side, Speaker John Boehner is in a more secure position entering the 114th than he was last Congress.  Although his conference is by no means unanimous in supporting him, a double-digit seat gain means the likelihood of a credible challenge is remote.  The surprise primary defeat of his ambitious Majority Leader Eric Cantor may have actually helped Boehner by eliminating a powerful rival who was one of the vaunted “Young Guns” espousing a more hard-line conservative approach to Boehner’s old-school dealmaking.  64-year-old Boehner is an oldster compared to Majority Leader (and “young gun”) Kevin McCarthy and Majority Whip (and Tea Party favorite) Steve Scalise, both of whom are 49 and beginning their 5th terms, and Conference Chair Cathy McMorris Rogers, 45 and entering her 6th term. Former vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan is just 44 as he enters his 8th term, where he is likely to chair the Ways and Means Committee.

The Senate leadership teams look to be identical to the line-up in the 113th with the parties swapping majority and minority roles.  Mitch McConnell, 72, will assume the helm with John Cornyn, John Thune, Roy Blunt, and John Barrasso retaining their 2nd through 5th spots, respectively.  Harry Reid, 74, who laid blame for Democrats’ poor showing squarely at President Obama’s feet, will retain his status as Senate Democratic Leader. Reid will be assisted by Dick Durbin as Whip, Chuck Schumer as Conference/Policy Chair, and Patty Murray as Conference Secretary.

McConnell and Reid will both be starting their 6th terms in the Senate.  Both know just how fleeting majority status can be in a chamber that has proven more electorally volatile than the House.  This year, Republicans had just 10 seats to defend, but in 2016, it will be Democrats who enjoy a much better map.  Coupled with higher turnout and a presidential race with no incumbent, another do-si-do at the top is possible, but the Republican gains in 2014 make it far from certain.

Susan Sullivan Lagon is a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Government Affairs Institute

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Categories: 114th Congress, Congressional Leadership, Revise & Extend, Updates