Black lawmakers are on the verge of a revolt over a proposal that could marginalize their political power, and are warning House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to crush the idea before it is discussed further -- or face an backlash.
The Congressional Black Caucus has never had more influence. It boasts a large number of senior lawmakers who have ascended to top positions only after years in the House of Representatives. They have banked on their seniority to solidify their status.
And now, with their caucus at its largest ever, they have the numbers to cause some serious trouble if they’re defied.
Its members are upset over internal Democratic discussions about limiting the role of seniority in determining key leadership posts, and imposing term limits on how long lawmakers can hold those positions.
There are more black members of Congress than ever – 46 members of the CBC in the current Congress (that’s nearly quarter of the Democrats in the House -- there’s just one Republican in the group) – wielding a historic amount of influence.
Black leaders have waited a generation for this moment.
Seven CBC members are the top-ranking Democratic leaders on Congressional committees and 23 members have the top post on subcommittees, largely because of seniority -- how long they’ve spent in Congress.
And while not all Democrats support the current system -- any change to it at this moment would have a disproportionate effect on black members of Congress, members of the CBC said.
“There's an old joke,” said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, “that once African Americans get there, the rules are going to change. Once Latinos get there, the rules are going to change. The seniority system has been there almost since the beginning of the Republic."
The issue of term limits was brought up in late 2014, when House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi told a gathering of Democratic members that some of their colleagues were interested in addressing the issue. A number of House Democrats began speaking out in support of the change in January.
Black members and their staffs grew alarmed. Although the Congressional Black Caucus has not yet taken a formal position on the matter, Chairman G.K. Butterfield told the Beast that “sentiment seems [to be] that we would vigorously oppose it.” Cleaver estimated that “90-ish percent” of the CBC opposes both term limits and reducing the role of seniority.
"Nancy Pelosi is playing with fire. There are a number of Congressional Black Caucus and Congressional Hispanic Caucus members who have paid their dues and served their time on committees, and to have that taken away would create a tremendous amount of disappointment,” a senior minority Congressional staffer told The Daily Beast.
While Congressional Black Caucus acknowledged that the proposed rule changes weren’t maliciously designed to target them, they said the unintended consequence of the rule change would be to marginalize their membership.
Other non-black members would certainly also be affected, they say, it has a particular effect on their members.
"The Congressional Black Caucus is the most influential caucus on the Hill. A lot of members would be impacted and affected, which presents a questions that all minority groups have to wrestle with: how do you leverage your voting block to bring about transformation?" CBC vice chair Rep. Andre Carson told The Daily Beast.
Black members and staffers warn the rule changes could limit opportunities beyond committee leadership slots: repercussions could extend to the diversity of senior staff, and on developing the careers of black staffers who will go on to work at federal agencies, the White House or at lobbying firms. Capitol Hill has long suffered from a lack of black staffers.
“Given that the most loyal constituency to the Democrats are African Americans -- who routinely vote 90 percent for them - a policy change like this can have an negative impact on other party efforts for recapturing the Senate, winning Governorships and the 2016 presidential election, even if it isn't intentional," argued Paul Brathwaite, a former executive director of the Congressional Black Caucus.
In a private meeting of Democrats Tuesday morning to discuss internal rules, CBC member Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee spoke out against leadership, arguing that there was insufficient transparency on their decisions, including on the term limits debate.
So far Pelosi is keeping her distance from the issue.
Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill said that the congresswoman "has not taken a position on the issue" of term limits and that any decision on rules would be "up to the Members of the Caucus."
On its face, the proposal isn’t a novel concept. House Republicans currently term limit their top committee posts to three terms or six years. While seniority plays a role, it is not the determining factor as to who gets to lead the committee. But the rule - implemented in 1994 - isn’t as controversial within the GOP ranks.
Ironically, while African American lawmakers are aghast at any attack on the seniority system, which they see as the strongest guarantee of their clout on Capitol Hill, it was one of the greatest obstacles of the civil rights movement. For decades, white Southern Democrats clung to it as the source of their power in the House of Representatives and used it to block civil rights bills and other progressive legislation.
Still, some Congressional Black Caucus members don’t want this to be viewed as a racial issue. There are many white representatives who oppose term limits, the most vocal of whom tend to be the Democratic leaders on their committees.
Rep. Karen Bass, a CBC member who is leading a Democratic committee to review internal rules, has remained entirely neutral on the matter.
"What I am concerned about more than anything is the attempt to completely characterize this as a black caucus versus the Dem caucus," she said.
This view was only "partially true," Bass added, since "you have white members who are ranking members on committees who are as concerned about term limits as anybody else."
CBC members say that the policy change would hurt Hispanic members of Congress as well – but these issues have not generated nearly the same interest from Hispanic Democrats as from the CBC.
“There is a diversity of opinions within the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. The CHC has not yet discussed this issue in the current Congress,” said Congressional Hispanic Caucus Chair Linda Sánchez.
The issues of term limits and seniority promise to be hot topics at the annual retreat House Democrats are holding in Philadelphia this week. "I doubt if many Democrats will make it through the week without having had some discussion with another Democrat" about the matter, Cleaver said.
There promises to be frustration at the retreat over the two topics – and in many ways it is a proxy for frustration over the Democratic Party’s current state.
"The problem that people are trying to resolve is that we went from 200 [seats] to 188, and members are not feeling as though there is enough opportunity," Bass said. "My concern is that I don't want to see the caucus fractured and turn on each other."
Ben Jacobs contributed to this report.