Slowly but surely, the old guard of the House Democratic Caucus is fading.
Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), with his announcement Monday that he will not seek reelection in 2012, joins a growing list of senior Democrats who have retired or lost races in the last two years.
The departures rob the party of decades in accumulated legislative experience, but they also provide openings for younger House Democrats who have seen their path to leadership positions and top committee slots blocked by a cadre of Democratic elders in their 70s and 80s.
Democrats determine their committee chairmen largely by seniority, and the top three members of their leadership team, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.) and Assistant Leader James Clyburn (S.C.), are all over 70.
In the 2010 elections, committee chairmen John Spratt (S.C.) and Ike Skelton (Mo.) lost reelection bids. Appropriations chief David Obey (Wis.) retired in the face of a tough campaign. The three had collectively served more than a century in Congress.
Since the start of the year, four House Democrats who have served more than 20 years have announced their retirements: Reps. Dale Kildee (Mich.), John Olver (Mass.), Jerry Costello (Ill.) and Frank.
Top Democrats downplay the extent to which the retirements of the last two years represent a changing of the guard for the party.
How old is your congressional representative? How old are your senators? My congressman (Dennis Cardoza) is retiring because he has been redistricted out of a job. My senators are 78 (Feinstein) and 71 (Boxer). Boxer just got reelected and Feinstein is running again next year. They both took office nineteen years ago. Robert Byrd was in office for his ninth senate term when he died at the age of 92.
I’m not really in favor of term limits, but maybe we should consider age limits. What have we got to lose. It’s not like the current leadership has been doing a bang-up job.