House Caucuses Prepare for Leadership Votes

November 17, 2020 by Dan McCue
U.S. Capitol, Nov. 12, 2020. (Photo by Dan McCue)

WASHINGTON – It’s the election insiders were talking about while most of America was still wondering what would happen on Election Day.

Every two years, the election of a new Congress is followed closely by caucus leadership elections.

On Tuesday, the House Republican caucus will hold its leadership elections, while the Democrats, who continue to hold the majority in the chamber, will hold their elections on Wednesday and Thursday.

As of this past weekend, all of the top leaders of both parties — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, and Majority Whip Jim Clyburn for the Democrats; House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, House Minority Whip Steve Scalise and House Republican Conference Chairwoman Liz Cheney for the Republicans — are running unopposed.

So too is the popular Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries.

But there are challenges for the roles of assistant speaker, caucus vice chair, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chair, Democratic Policy and Communications Committee co-chairs, and caucus leadership representative.

Thanks to retirements and self-imposed term limits on the Republican side of the aisle, there are also contests for who’ll be the next ranking member of critical committees, including a closely watched race for that spot on the House Energy & Commerce Committee.

And it’s likely that the Republican leadership elections will be a bifurcated affair. As of this writing it appeared that conference rules for the party’s 117th Congress Steering Committee would be voted on Tuesday, while presentations from candidates for various committee appointments likely won’t occur until the first week of December.

First Vote

One of the unique features of the leadership election is that brand new members who haven’t spent an hour on Capitol Hill yet get to vote for who their leaders will be for the next two years.

“The idea is that these are going to be your leaders,” a Democratic staffer said.

As a tangible reminder that elections do have consequences, it’s also a bittersweet moment. The leadership elections for the next Congress are the first time that members who are retiring or who are leaving after losing a re-election bid, are relegated to the sidelines.

While there’s an air of “inside baseball” about the whole thing, the proceedings actually are important to every citizen.

They not only determine who will shape the agendas of Democratic and Republican caucuses for the next two years, but they’ll also shape how members talk to the American people about that agenda.

Whether the caucus votes transpire in a day, or go on for two or three, they are also significant because they’re the moment for all members to weigh in on the values and direction of the caucus next year and beyond.

Congressional staffers, both Democrat and Republican and speaking on background, said this year’s contests are intriguing for another reason — with all of the Democratic leaders now in their 80s, who proves victorious on the lower rungs of the ladder could be the one’s steering the ship years down the road.

“Everyone knows that someday, Pelosi, Hoyer and Clyburn will no longer be leading the caucus. So in a sense, these positions are leadership in training. They’re where you start your climb up the ladder, with the thought that one day, you might be a potential replacement for these folks,” a staffer said.

But there’s a big caveat to that, another staffer said. There’s no rule that says succession within the caucus has to work that way.

“You could have somebody who’s never run for anything wind up in a significant leadership position,” this individual said. “Not that it’s likely, but there are scenarios in which pockets within the new Congress swarm in at the last minute and run for a position and win.”

That said, the staffer conceded the overwhelming majority of those who vie for a junior leadership position are doing so with aspirations of moving up.

“Look it’s a complicated thing,” he said. “These positions offer those with ambitions to ascend higher in the caucus with the opportunity to learn how to manage the equities and interests of a very broad and very diverse coalition.

“At least as compared to the Republicans, who tend to be somewhat homogeneous,” he added.

Assistant Speaker

On the Democratic side of the aisle, one of the most intriguing races this term is for assistant speaker, a position Rep. Ben Ray Luján vacated by making a successful run for the U.S. Senate.

The New Mexico Democrat will replace the retiring Tom Udall in January. And as a result, the assistant speakership is the only high-ranking Democratic leadership position in which there won’t be an incumbent to challenge.

The first member to throw his hat in the ring was Rep. Tony Cárdenas, of California. However, he’s since withdrawn from the contest, opting instead to run for chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

That has left Rep. David Cicilline, of Rhode Island, and Rep. Katherine Clark, of Massachusetts, in a two person race.

Cicilline is currently chairman of the House Democrats’ messaging arm, the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee.

In his letter to colleagues, he said “as the first openly gay member elected to the House leadership, it has been an incredible honor and privilege to serve as chairman and co-chair of the DPCC over the last four years.”

He went on to remind his colleagues that he had run for assistant speaker last cycle, but dropped out of the race when Luján, who had played an outsized role delivering the House majority to the party in 2018, decided to seek the job.

With Luján moving on, Cicilline says he is eager to “take on a new responsibility and to help lead our caucus.”

Cicilline has said he wants to act as a bridge “between the leadership team and rank-and-file lawmakers, and said he wants members to have a stronger voice in the legislative process.

Rep. Clark is currently vice chairwoman of the Democratic caucus and well known for her abilities as a party fundraiser.

In her six years in the House, Clark has steadily climbed the leadership ranks.

In 2017, she was vice chair of recruitment for the 2018 cycle and traveled the country to recruit candidates, with a “really big focus” on recruiting women and bringing them into the political process.

During the 2018 cycle, Clark was co-chair of the Red-to-Blue Committee, which successfully flipped scores of formally red districts to the Democrats, handing the party the House majority.

Though the assistant speakership has no assigned role, Clark believes it’s vital to use the position to cultivate the success of newer members, and make sure they have a message to bring home so that they can be re-elected.

She is also a firm believer in the Democrats having to cultivate and continue to grow its majority if the party wants to keep it. This year, she reportedly raised over $4.5 million for members of the incoming freshman class.

Through the Elect Democratic Women PAC, of which Clark is a co-founder, she made contributions to more than 70 female candidates.

“All of this work is inter-connected,” said a friend of Clark’s on the Hill. “What is the future of the House? Hopefully, it will be more representative of women and American families. And how do we make sure that we continue to be successful passing legislation that works for families? By having people who are representative of America in Washington.”

Clark herself told The Well News that she’s running for assistant speaker to “build” on the work she’s currently doing as the caucus vice chair.

“I’ve been at the leadership table, I’ve worked with members, building trust and making sure that their voices are heard as we are putting our policy and legislative agendas together, and I’ve supported them in their offices,” she said.

“I look at this job in much the same light as I look at my role as vice chair,” she said. “I support the needs of the members, and in turn, the American people.”

Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee

Cárdenas is competing with Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney of New York to chair the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Other names mentioned since Rep. Cheri Bustos stepped down just over a week ago are Rep. Marc Veasey, of Texas, and Rep. Linda Sánchez, of Calif.

The election for the next DCCC chair comes as the party is divided over what lessons to draw from a disappointing 2020 election.  

Though the Democrats kept the majority in the chamber, they had been widely expected to add seats. Instead, a number of incumbents lost.

The rebuild for the next chair won’t be made any easier by that fact that whoever wins is facing the prospect of a challenging midterm election in 2022 as the president’s party typically loses House seats in the first midterm of an administration.

“The upcoming midterm elections will not be easy and I won’t sugarcoat the truth – it will be a hell of a fight,” Cárdenas said in his dear colleague letter. “But families in all corners of America are counting on us to win again in two years and I refuse to let them or this Caucus down. This fight will be an enormous responsibility I humbly embrace because I am confident that I have the experience, commitment, and passion needed to lead us successfully over the finish line.” 

Cárdenas chaired BOLD PAC, the political arm of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, during the 2020 cycle. The group spent nearly $12.2 million this cycle supporting Latino candidates for Congress as well as non-Latino candidates the group endorsed.

Maloney attempted to run for DCCC chair two years ago, in what was first ever contested race for the position. This time he announced his intention to run even before the outcome of his re-election bid in New York’s 18th Congressional District was known.

He finally declared victory in that race on Saturday but AP still has not called the race.

Throwing One’s Hat in the Ring

Running for a leadership position isn’t all that much different from running in any other election.

The first thing a hopeful has to do is cultivate the support of their colleagues, usually starting with a letter that sets out their qualifications and what they are interested in should they get the job.

Some who are pursuing a leadership post call other members directly to solicit their support, others — especially in these COVID era days — set up web calls with like minded members.

Of course, none of this happens in a vacuum. Members who have worked for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee or have otherwise been involved in the election have a natural entree to the newly elected members, and therefore can gain a leg up on the competition.

From there, it’s less about campaigning and more about  “doing the work” and “showing up” — “especially with everything that was on the line in the election,” a staffer said.

Races for committee chair, the most significant being races for Appropriations, Transportation and Infrastructure, are handled a bit differently.

What happens in these cases is a steering committee and policy group is formed. One group of members of this committee is caucus leadership. The remainder of slots are filled by members voting for someone to represent their geographic region.

Once formed, the Steering and Policy Committee votes on candidates and makes recommendations on who it thinks the chair should be. Then the full caucus is asked to approve that recommendation.

“If you want to be chairman, you really want to win that Steering Committee vote, because you want to come forward to the full caucus with its recommendation that you be the next chair,” one staffer said.

Republicans Adhere to More Streamlined Process

Compared to the Democrats, the Republicans’ process is a bit more streamlined, and designed to rely also exclusively on the Steering Committee model.

Once a position opens up, members interested in filling it are expected to begin campaigning for it right away and to continue campaigning until the vote.

“It’s a real campaign,” one GOP staffer said. “I mean, it’s not like you just show up and do it.

“And a lot of times, the people on the steering committee leadership intentionally play their cards close to their vests, because they want the people running for a particular position to basically try to woo them. You’ve got to really make a pitch for them,” he said.

Fundraising plays a role as well. The decision makers want the prospective leader to support the RNCC and to support other candidates and help raise money for people.

Members running for a position will give a presentation. In the old days, the vote was largely on seniority, though that has changed lately. Being the most senior doesn’t mean you’ll get the position anymore.

Basically, you have to make a presentation based on what you think gets you the best chance to convince people to support you.

“So for some people, that could be the policy argument … or perhaps it is the messaging argument … maybe there are certain people on the steering committee that you’re hoping to convince to come over to your side, so you talk about an issue that you know is important to them …

“And you use whatever you think is best … some people use powerpoint, and some people use video,” a staffer said.

Democratic Caucus Vice Chair

With Clark looking to move up, she’s created a vacancy in her current leadership post, that of Democratic Caucus Vice Chair.

The three members running for that slot are Rep. Pete Aguilar, of California, Rep. Robin Kelly of Illinois, and Rep. Deb Haaland, of New Mexico.

The caucus vice chair is essentially in the member services business. A lot of the time that means creating some kind of internal capacity to help members accomplish a specific task.

That could mean, for instance, making translation products available to members who have bilingual districts so they can do a mailer “in-house” rather than have to outsource it.

Another example is the studio the Democratic Caucus runs that allows members to record videos for their constituents.

Aguilar, who represents a purple district in his home state, currently serves as Whip of the New Democrat Coalition and is a member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

In his letter to colleagues announcing his intention to run, Aguilar said one of his top priorities will be to “facilitate communications between our members,” acknowledging that while the pandemic has forced many members to work apart, “that doesn’t mean we have to be disconnected from each other.”

Among the steps he wants to take is to build on the caucus’ successes with technology during the 116th Congress, “by ensuring members have more opportunities to give their feedback through smaller group calls and video discussions.”

“I want to ensure that we continue to get to know and understand our colleagues and the diverse perspectives in our caucus,” Aguilar said later in the same letter. “Understanding where we each come from and our districts’ needs will help us continue our progress.”

Last week, the New Democrat Coalition threw its support behind their colleague.

“Pete knows that House Democrats come from a variety of districts and backgrounds and will work to make sure all members have a voice in the strategy and direction of our caucus,” said New Dem Coalition Chairman Derek Kilmer.

“He understands what it takes to grow our majority and make progress on behalf of the American people. Now more than ever it is important that New Dems have a strong voice at the leadership table,” Kilmer added.

Rep. Kelly told The Well News that she’s running for the position because it suits her natural ability as a coalition builder.

“I want to make sure that members have the tools they need to be successful, and a big part of that is ensuring that no member feels they are being left out or marginalized,” she said. “Whether you are Red-to-Blue, or Frontline or Progressive or Blue Dog or New Dem … whatever coalition or caucus you belong to, the important thing is that you also feel part of a whole.

“We don’t always have to agree. I know we have a big tent and we like having a big tent and a diversity of ideas. But I do think there are core things that we all care about and care about deeply.

“This role is one in which I’ll be able to take definitive steps to ensure our members don’t forget that,” she said.

Aides to Rep. Kelly noted the role seems like a natural fit for her outgoing personality and reflects the ways she’s always interacted with members, being willing to stop and answer fellow questions on everything from how to design a successful constituent mail program to how to advance legislation.

Haaland is one the first two Native American women ever elected to Congress. The other being Rep. Sharice Davids, of Kansas, who also joined the House following the 2018 election.

Like Kelly, she’s seen as someone who is willing to listen to caucus members of all persuasions, and help them try to fulfill their priorities.

She’s also an ardent supporter of a number of diversity initiatives in the House.

While Haaland is considered a formidable challenger to Aguilar and Kelly, in recent days she’s also been said to be in the running to be President-elect Joe Biden’s secretary of the interior.

When asked whether she was interested in the role during a recent interview with HuffPost, Haaland said “Oh yes, of course.”

Among the other leadership races to watch this week is the race for co-chair of the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee.

Three incumbents — Reps. Debbie Dingell, of Michigan, Ted Lieu, of Calif., and Matt Cartwright, of Pennsylvania, are in the running — as is Rep. Joe Neguse, of Colorado.

Three representatives are also competing for the role of Caucus Leadership Representative.

They are Reps. Colin Allred, of Texas, Jason Crow, of Colorado, and Brenda Lawrence, of Michigan.

Do These Races Create A Buzz?

Given the current state of the pandemic and the large number of Hill staffers who continue to work remotely, it’s difficult to perceive any particular buzz being stirred by this year’s leadership elections.

If your member is running, yes you’re likely excited about it. Aside from that, “I would say every staff member is looking at what happens with the Appropriations Committee because, you know, anything you do has money involved in it,” a staffer said.

“And then, of course, there’s what’s going on in your district. If you’ve got some big transportation and infrastructure projects planned in your district, you’re probably watching Transportation and Infrastructure Chairs closely because those people are going to decide whether your life is difficult,” the staffer added.

Another staffer agreed.

“Committee chairs can really affect your life. As far as the other leadership positions go, it’s more like a fan girl popularity contest,” they said.

“Those races, the leadership races, are also where you see weird things happen, like a member saying, ‘I love working with other members,’ when that’s not the case at all, and then you have people saying ‘You don’t work with anyone ever!’

Still another staffer said as far as people who work on the Hill are concerned, “It’s hard to get overly excited or interested or involved … but there are people who you just really like and you think, ‘He’s so cool. I’m excited for him to be chair.'”

Pressed for a name, the staffer quickly said “Hakeem Jeffries.”

“Everybody likes Rep. Jeffries. He’s just a really nice guy,” they said.

For those actually vying for a position, the 2020 leadership contest has not been easy.

One reason is the razor tight races many of the incumbents found themselves in this year, making counting votes difficult for the leadership prospects.

Another big challenge this year stemmed from that fact that a large number of members of the Democratic cause are from the west, where a terrible wildfire season dominated the attention of elected officials.

“I heard both of those things a lot,” one staffer said. “It really was hard to count votes when so many folks were fighting uphill battles and were not sure they were coming back … and the fires, at times, simply made it impossible to get people on the phone because they were so busy with constituent issues.”

Committee Leadership

Minnesota Rep. Colin Peterson‘s loss to Republican Rep.-elect Michelle Fischbach, means there will be a competition for chair of the House Agriculture Committee.

Those in the running include Reps. Jim Costa, of California, David Scott, of Georgia, and Marcia Fudge, of Ohio.

The committee is also undergoing a transition on the Republican side of the aisle, with the retirement of Rep. Mike Conaway, the body’s ranking member.

Running to replace him are Reps. Glenn Thompson, of Pennsylvania, Austin Scott, of Georgia, and Rick Crawford, of Arkansas.

Retirement is also changing the leadership of the House Appropriations Committee.

With the departure of Rep. Nita Lowey, of New York, a trio of Representatives are vying for the job — Reps. Rosa DeLauro, of Connecticut, Marcy Kaptur, of Ohio, and Debbie Waserman Schultz, of Florida.

Over at the House Armed Services Committee, the retirement of ranking member Rep. Mac Thornberry, of Texas, has set up a race between Reps. Joe Wilson, of South Carolina, Mike Turner, of Ohio, and Mike Rogers, of Alabama.

But perhaps the most pitched battle of all is for ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, a body with sweeping authority over matters related to energy, commerce, healthcare, telecommunications and technology.

The current Energy and Commerce Chairman Greg Walden, of Oregon, is retiring and that’s touched off a three-way race between Reps. Michael Burgess, of Texas, Bob Latta, of Ohio, and Cathy McMorris Rodgers, of Washington.

In her letter announcing her intention to seek the chairmanship, McMorris Rodgers portrayed herself as a well proven commodity, having served six years as the House Republican Conference chairwoman.

“It’s the combination of having proven myself from a political perspective, the leadership experience, the policy leadership, the communications skills I bring having done the tough interviews — it’s a combination of all of those things that make me uniquely prepared,” she said.

She also noted that during her years in Congress she’s been one of its top fundraisers, and has dedicated time and energy to helping other candidates.

This year alone she more than doubled her fundraising requirement to the National Republican Congressional Committee and donated nearly $560,000 to other candidates.

An aide to the congresswoman told The Well News, McMorris Rodgers sees the committee as the venue for dealing with the “really fundamental” issues confronting the nation.

“When you think of the issues before the committee — whether its healthcare or energy or the environment or technology or data privacy or rural broadband — these are all things that are really at the top of political conversation right now, and they are also all issues she cares passionately about,” the aide said.

“At the same time, she also thinks these issues are fundamental to Republicans and the future of our party and we need to win on these issues to win back the House majority,” he said.

If McMorris Rodgers is selected, she would make history as the first top female leader for either party on the committee.

As for Latta, who spoke to The Well News the morning after the election, he too spoke of the scope of the committee’s jurisdiction and the need to seize on the issues “and really get them right while making sure to clearly communicate our positions on the policies that emerge” from the panel.

“Unfortunately,  you’d rather hold the gavel on a committee like this than be the ranking member with less ability to set the agenda, but that said, I believe we have got to find common ground and get things done,” he said.

“Being ranking member is really about working to make sure we find those areas of agreement that we can work on together with our colleagues across the aisle,” he said.

Noting that he’s been on the committee for a decade and chaired all of its subcommittees over that time, Latta said he’s worked with many Democrats over the years, as a member of both the House majority and the minority, and he knows how to get bipartisan legislation passed.

“The needs of America are great,” he said. “I think it’s time for each and every one of us on the committee to roll our sleeves up and get to work.”

Rep. Michael Burgess, a doctor by profession before he ran for Congress, told The Well News the first thing that attracted him to the committee 20 years ago was its jurisdiction over health care issues.

But today he also argues his Texan status gives him the background he would need on the energy efforts that are also a large part of the committee’s domain.

Asked why he chose to run for ranking member, Burgess matter-of-factly offered “Well, there’s no time like the present, right?”

Turning more serious, he pointed out that with Walden not running for reelection, “I am the next person in seniority.”

“Of course, Republicans don’t go just on seniority, there’s other factors,” he added. “But seniority can still carry some importance.”

Burgess since he joined the committee in January 2005, has seen “a lot of policies, major policies, come through the committee … and some have had a major impact on the U.S. economy.”

“I do believe that the recovery of the United States economy is likely going to come through the policies in the Energy and Commerce Committee, and that it’s role can either be positive or negative.

“So while I want to be there … talking about the policies that will help the country, I also see the roles that I might have to play as being one where I am trying to prevent really bad policies from affecting the country,” Burgess said.

Although he could sound like the staunchest partisan at times, the representative went on to say the committee has a long history of bipartisanship.

“In fact, some of our best and most enduring work has been built from the ground up, with both sides of the dais participating in its development,” he said.

Asked about the steering committee process he’ll soon have to participate in to fulfill his goal, Burgess admitted “It’s a little bit different.”

“We’ve all had to win political races in order to get to Congress, but this is a much narrower constituency — just the 20-odd people on the steering committee.

“And it’s not something that the public gets to see as the process is occurring. So you want to be sure to have done all your homework and spoken to all the people you need to speak to before you go before the committee,” he said.

“The point is to get as many people on your side as you possibly can,” Burgess continued. “You may change a few minds in your favor through your presentation, but by and large the vast amount of work is done prior to the committee meeting.”

Though he reiterated the importance of seniority and a knowledge of policy, the representative said of course, there are political considerations that have to be taken into account as well.

Speaking just before Election Day, when he still hoped for a Republican majority in the House, Burgess said he was asking for nothing less than to be the chairman of the committee, “and if you’re going to hold a committee gavel, you’ve got to be able to raise money like a chairman.”

“I think I’ve been able to demonstrate an ability to do that throughout my tenure in Congress, and an ability to really kick it into overdrive at a time of pandemic, when none of this has been easy,” he said. “Despite the pandemic, I think the record shows I posted numbers that are very, very competitive as far as being able to lead a committee from a political standpoint.”

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