A fight has broken out among top Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee over replacing Rep. John Conyers as the ranking member of the panel, even though the 88-year-old Michigan Democrat says he’s not going anywhere.
Whoever is the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee is a critical issue. Many Democrats believe they have a good chance of taking back the House in November 2018, and the Judiciary panel would be a key battleground for taking on President Donald Trump if Democrats are in the majority in the next Congress.
In a June 8 letter obtained by POLITICO, Rep. Zoe Lofgren (Calif.) — the third highest ranking Democrat on Judiciary — warned Rep. Jerry Nadler (N.Y.), who is No. 2 behind Conyers, that she has heard Nadler is meeting with fellow Democrats about replacing Conyers. Lofgren warned Nadler that there is no current vacancy atop Judiciary, but if it does happen, she would be interested in the job, too.
“It’s been brought to my attention that you are pro-actively seeking meetings with Caucus colleagues to discuss the top Democratic position on the House Judiciary Committee. I also understand you’re asserting I wouldn’t be a candidate for the slot of if it was vacant,” Lofgren told Nadler. “I request you refrain from characterizing my intentions.”
While noting that Conyers has not said what his intentions are for the 116th Congress, Lofgren pointed out “that the top Committee position ‘need not follow seniority.’ 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.”
Lofgren closed by saying that she has “made extraordinary efforts to help the Caucus regain the majority. At this time, I believe that effort is the most beneficial use of my time and energy for the issues and values that matter to our colleagues on the Judiciary Committee and our Caucus.”
Lofgren declined a request for an interview for this report. An aide said, “The content should speak for itself.”
Nadler also declined a request for an interview. Daniel Schwarz, Nadler’s communications director, denied that the New York Democrat was seeking to oust Conyers.
"Mr. Nadler has and will always continue to support Mr. Conyers, who is a dear friend. Any suggestion to the contrary is patently absurd,” Schwarz said in a statement.
Conyers’ office did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Conyers — first elected to Congress in 1964 — is the dean of the House and one of the longest serving members in congressional history. He’s been the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee for the last decade, and he is the first African-American to chair the panel.
But at 88, even his allies would admit that Conyers is slower and less robust than he once was, and there was some internal discussion among Democrats before the start of this Congress about replacing him as Judiciary ranking member. Since Democrats were in the minority, the issue was not considered essential.
Democrats, though, did replace 85-year-old Rep. Sandy Levin (Mich.) as the top Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee following last year’s election, so there is recent precedent for Democrats to push out one of their own.
Yet Conyers will have the support of the powerful Congressional Black Caucus, which plays a critical role inside the Democratic Caucus, to help fight off an attempt to supersede him. Conyers is one of the co-founders of the group, and any move to push him aside at Judiciary would probably provoke a furious reaction from the CBC.
For Democrats, the question over a potential Conyers’ successor may be even more delicate due to the fact that they could end up in the majority next year, meaning whoever gets the gavel would chair the Judiciary panel.
That post will be a high-profile one if the House were to investigate Trump, which would make it a critical spot in a risk-laden political struggle with a sitting president who may be running for reelection in 2020. A number of Democrats privately fret that Conyers is not up to the task.
To some Democrats, Nadler already serves unofficially as the ranking member of Judiciary. Nadler, who will turn 70 this week, is a shrewd debater and respected strategist. He is good with the press and highly quotable. Nadler has served in the House since 1992.
Lofgren, 69, is equally well respected among her colleagues. The former law professor is an expert on immigration law and has been very vocal on the issue. Lofgren is a former chairwoman of the House Ethics Committee and close ally of Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
The issue of replacing older or infirm lawmakers, especially when they are committee chairs or ranking members, is always a sensitive one. There is also an ironic angle – seniority is hugely valuable in a legislative body like Congress, yet a lawmaker may be well beyond their physical or intellectual peak when they reach the most vaunted positions on a committee.
Or there is the other side of the equation. A lawmaker may serve atop a committee for so long that it becomes difficult politically to replace them. A member or senator may have so much prestige that it becomes nearly impossible to do so without causing an uproar.
For instance, Senate Democrats wrestled with replacing the late Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) as chairman of the Appropriations Committee in 2008. Senate Republicans faced the same question with the late Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.). Thurmond was 95 when he gave up the gavel at the Armed Services Committee, although an aide had often sat in on private meetings on defense issues instead of Thurmond for years prior to that.