The forced amble toward the exits by Rep. John Conyers Jr. is accelerating one of the most consequential power vacuums in Congress in the eyes of the Democratic base.
The moment is as much about the party positioning itself for the future as it is about managing sexual harassment problems in the present.
Being the ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee is really not that big a deal so long as the Democrats remain in the minority, which limits the job description to putting on an angry and impassioned show while the Republicans roll their socially conservative agenda right past you. But if the party wins control in the midterm election, the committee chairmanship would be among the most highly prized spoils of victory in the minds of the liberals who dominate Democratic policymaking.
Judiciary is not a plum “money committee,” because comparatively little of its jurisdiction motivates campaign check-writing on K Street or in the corporate C-suites. Instead, it ranks first among equals as a “passion committee,” because the electorate that anchors both the left and right are so fervent about the issues that most often put Judiciary in the headlines — from civil rights to privacy rights, gun control to criminal sentencing, voting rights to gender discrimination, immigration to abortion.
Watch: What Are the Sexual Misconduct Charges Against Current Democratic Members?
On top of all that, the committee and its leader would play a central role in what stands to become the defining question for the 116th Congress if Democrats are in charge of the House: How and when should impeachment proceedings be considered against President Donald Trump?
For all these reasons, it had become close to a given that the 88-year-old Conyers, who passed his prime as a legislative force once a four-year run as chairman ended with the GOP takeover of 2010, would never hold the Judiciary gavel again.
The contest to succeed him in the top Democratic spot, between the unreconstructed liberal Jerrold Nadler of Manhattan’s Upper West Side and the deal-making Zoe Lofgren of Silicon Valley, quietly got started at least four years ago and has started bubbling to the surface in recent months.
It will be totally out in the open starting Tuesday, as House members return to the Capitol from their Thanksgiving break.
That is because Conyers on Sunday acceded to leadership pressure and announced he was stepping away from the ranking member post while the Ethics Committee investigates reports he sexually harassed several aides and his acknowledgment of a secret, taxpayer-funded settlement with one of them. (He has said he will not resign as the congressman for much of Detroit, a job he’s had for 53 years, but he has five months to decide about running for a 28th term — and several potentially strong rivals have as much time to test the waters while waiting for Ethics to deliver its report.)
Watch: Six Lawmakers Have Resigned Due to Sexual Misbehavior in 10 Years
How the Democrats formally decide to handle their unexpectedly vacant top chair on Judiciary will inform whether there’s a genuinely fair fight between the aspirants.
Because the Democrats have both a cultural and procedural history of deferring to seniority, and because Nadler is No. 2 on the panel roster while Lofgren is No. 3, he will step into the role automatically — at least temporarily.
The longer he stays there, and assuming he makes no enormous missteps in the job, the more difficult it would be for Lofgren to win support among her colleagues for taking his place.
That is why she would need to move relatively quickly to persuade Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a fellow Californian to whom she is close, to propose a process by which Nadler is considered only an interim ranking member while the leadership-driven Steering Committee and then the full Democratic Caucus decide whether he or Lofgren should be Conyers’ indefinite successor.
That cannot happen until Conyers totally relinquishes the post — or his fellow Democrats take the extraordinary step of stripping him of his rank, a punishment many would be loath to give a driving force on so much civil rights legislation and a co-founder of the Congressional Black Caucus.
Nadler, who turned 70 in June, and Lofgren, whose 70th birthday is in three weeks, would represent a clear generational shift in Democratic leadership at Judiciary but not much of an ideological one.
Like Conyers, both of them have opposed virtually everything Trump has asked for on the House floor — but voted the way Barack Obama wanted more often than the typical Democrat during his eight years as president. (Nadler went against Obama on just 9 percent of the nearly 500 roll calls in which the president’s position was clear, while Lofgren did so 10 percent of the time.) In the past 15 years, both of them, like Conyers, have toed the Democratic line on more than 97 percent of the roll calls that split mainly along partisan lines — a measure of party loyalty a notch above the Democratic average.
Their stylistic differences are easier to discern and tend to reflect the different archetypes of their constituencies.
Nadler presents himself as proudly loud, blunt and pugnacious, while Lofgren cultivates a more controlled, circumspect and scholarly persona. He is a more enthusiastic player of the outside game — eager to show off his debating skills, work the press corps and to take credit for a successful partisan tactic. She seems to have done better at the inside game — cultivating enough respect behind the scenes to cut some incremental deals with the GOP and get tapped to lead the Ethics Committee during a particularly contentious period.
Nadler and Lofgren both grew up working-class just after World War II; his parents were struggling egg farmers in southern New Jersey and hers were a beer truck driver and a school cafeteria cook near Palo Alto. Both worked as legislative aides (he in Albany, she on the Hill) before attending law school and launching careers in local politics in the late 1970s.
Nadler helped pay his way working in an off-track betting parlor; Lofgren became a practitioner and professor of immigration law.
More recently, both have done their share of raising money for their colleagues and their party campaign operation. Both have been reliably antagonistic toward Trump and his agenda from the start. Each skipped the inauguration in protest. Nadler has joined a lawsuit contending Trump’s business entanglements violate the Constitution, while Lofgren has proposed legislation mandating the president undergo a psychiatric evaluation to determine if he’s fit for office.
Conyers is one of only seven people (and the only nonwhite male) who has been in Congress longer than half a century. In addition to being dean of the House, an unofficial title bestowed on the member with the most seniority, for the past three years, he spent an astonishing 23 years as the top Democrat on Judiciary.
This summer, amid Nadler’s more-or-less open effort to wrap up the contest to get that job next, which then seemed more than a year in the future, Lofgren sent him a tart missive urging him to back off — and made sure the letter made it to the press.
“The top committee position need not follow seniority,” she wrote. “I am fully confident if I put my credentials forward for caucus consideration that I fully meet all the criteria outlined in the caucus rules.”