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A New Generation Calls for 'Passing of the Torch' in Congress

In light of what they see as unsatisfactory responses to sexual assault allegations, some younger lawmakers say Congressional leadership needs to 'pass the torch' to the next generation

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    A New Generation Calls for 'Passing of the Torch' in Congress
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    Some New York lawmakers are pushing for faster sexual harassment workplace reforms in the government. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, left, Rep. Kathleen Rice and Rep. Hakeem Jeffries are some of the state's younger lawmakers to publicly push for a faster response in wake of a slew of recent sexual harassment allegations made against public figures, celebrities and politicians.

    Amid sexual misconduct allegations that have rocked Capitol Hill, a generational divide is becoming increasingly evident in Congress. The upheaval has spurred a wave of younger lawmakers to demand institutional reform and call for top Congressional leaders to step down and make way for the next generation.

    "Given the current age profile of the Democrats, it seems like there will be a generational shift," Gregory J. Wawro, a professor of political science at Columbia University, told NBC. "That seems inevitable now. To what extent that will bring about changes in Congress or changes in the Democratic Party, that remains to be seen."

    While longtime Congressional leaders stumbled over their responses to the allegations that shook Capitol Hill and resulted in three lawmakers stepping down, younger legislators immediately demanded action.

    Rep. Kathleen Rice, 52, and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, 50, both representing New York, were among the first to call for the resignations of Rep. John Conyers and Sen. Al Franken. Both announced their resignations last week.

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    (Published Thursday, May 17, 2018)

    In contrast, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, 77, initially questioned the claims made against Conyers after ex-staffers accused him of inappropriate touching.

    “Just because someone is accused — and was it one accusation? Is it two? I think there has to be — John Conyers is an icon in our country,” Pelosi said on NBC's “Meet the Press.”

    Rep. James Clyburn, 77, the assistant Democratic leader from South Carolina, echoed Pelosi's remarks, initially saying the allegations could have been made up before calling for him to resign. 

    Although Pelosi later said she believed Conyers' accusers and also eventually called for his resignation, Rice blasted her response.

    “I think that her comments on Sunday set women back and — quite frankly, our party back — decades,” she told reporters at the Capitol on Nov. 29, Politico reported. 

    Rice is part of an increasing number of young lawmakers pushing for longtime Congressional leaders to move aside for a new generation of leaders.

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    “I’ve been vocal about the fact that I think we need new leaders stepping up to offer new strategies and new ideas for our caucus, our party, and most importantly for the people we serve,” Rice told NBC.

    Democratic Rep. Linda Sanchez, 48, called for Pelosi’s resignation in an October speech.

    “Our leadership does a tremendous job, but we do have this real breadth and depth of talent within our caucus and I do think it’s time to pass the torch to a new generation of leaders,” said Sanchez, 48.

    Pelosi, who has served in Congress for 30 years and has held the top Democratic leadership position since 2003, continues to be a top fundraiser for the Democratic Party. She made history as the first woman speaker of the House and has been credited with shepherding the Affordable Care Act into being. But she has been facing mounting criticism that she is out of touch with younger, working-class voters.

    “Pelosi is still indebted to the same cadre of donors and party professionals whose perception of the political dynamics in the country is highly distorted,” said journalist Michael Tracey, who wrote a June CNBC op-ed titled “How Nancy Pelosi is helping Republicans win.”

    Pelosi said earlier this year she would have retired from Congress if Hillary Clinton had been elected president in 2016. 

    “One of the reasons I stayed here is because I thought Hillary Clinton would win, we’d have a woman president and so there would be a woman not at a seat at the table, but at the head of the table for the world,” Pelosi said in a September interview with The New York Times.

    A spokesman for Pelosi said that she has no plans to retire.

    "[Pelosi] feels it’s important that there be a woman at the table," Drew Hammill told NBC. "She’s the highest ranking woman in American government to this day."

    The age of Pelosi and other Democratic leaders is as much of a factor in the criticism against them as their decades of entrenchment in political institutions.

    “Our leadership is old and creaky, including me,” former Democratic National Committee Chair Howard Dean, 69, told MSNBC in February.

    Hammill said that Pelosi has continuously sought to invigorate younger leadership in Congress and that he sees a disparity between criticism toward Pelosi and toward her male colleagues such as Sen. Bernie Sanders, 76, and Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, 75.

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    The 115th Congress is among the oldest in history, with nearly 35 percent of its members aged 65 or older. In 1981, the average representative was 49 years old and the average senator was 53, according to a report by Quorum, which pulled data from lawmakers’ official biographies. Today, those averages have gone up to 57 years for representatives and 61 for senators.

    Democratic leaders tend to be older than their Republican counterparts.

    In the House, the average age for Democratic lawmakers in leadership positions is 72 years old, while the average age of Republican House leadership is 48. Three of the four House Democrats, Nancy Pelosi, Steny Hoyer and James E. Clyburn, are all in their late 70s.

    “The Democrats' geriatric tilt in Congress and their leadership is a handicap,” Robert S. Erikson, a professor of political science at Columbia University, told NBC. “Sometimes I wonder if the Democrats' Congressional leadership is itself aware of the optics of this, whether this is for them a cause for concern.”

    Saturday Night Live took on the optics of this "geriatric tilt" in a November skit, with the fake Democratic National Committee touting “fresh new ideas delivered by fresh new faces.”

    These faces, portrayed by SNL actors, were some of the party's most prominent members, including Pelosi, “hot young thing” Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, 68, Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, 59, and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, 76.

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    Congress needs to adapt to keep up with changes in society, experts say.

    “There’s always been a reluctance [in Congress] to change the status quo, Wawro said. “But society is moving very quickly on some of the issues, especially with respect to sexual harassment, and it seems like inevitably the institution will be forced to change, just as the larger society and the workplace that are being forced to change because of increased awareness and victims of harassment becoming more vocal.”

    Experts agree that some new leadership in Congress would be beneficial, especially for Democrats.

    “I think it would be good if they did have younger members of the party assume leadership positions, assuming those individuals are qualified and have a vision for the party in the current context,” Wawro said.

    But he said that the question of whether Pelosi or other top leaders should step aside is a complicated one.

    "They got where they are and have stayed where they are for a reason and it’s risky to lose their experience and fundraising prowess if they were to step aside," said Wawro. 

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    William H. Frey, a senior fellow at The Brookings Institution, said that although some existing Congressional leaders do have the power to pass laws that would benefit the younger generation, leadership inevitably shifts toward the younger generation over time.

    "I do think it would be helpful to have some new blood," Frey said. "And there is some new blood around. From what I understand, there are a lot of younger people who haven’t run before running in 2018 in both parties, particularly in the Democratic party, which I think is good news," Frey said.

    Rice is one of the newest members of Congress, having represented parts of New York for just two years.

    "When you’re newer to an institution like this, I think you’re naturally inclined to look at the status quo and think about how we can make it better," she said.

    Rice and Gillibrand are among several younger lawmakers pushing for reform in Congress in how it deals with sexual harassment claims.

    Rice, along with four other House members, two of whom are in their 30s, introduced a bipartisan bill to force the House to reveal the names of lawmakers who have settled harassment claims paid out with taxpayer dollars.

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    “The American people have a right to know if their tax dollars are being used to protect a member of Congress and silence victims of sexual harassment and assault,” Rice said.

    Gillibrand introduced a bill last month that would reform the sexual harassment complaint process and increase transparency. She has previously tried to pass legislation to change how sexual assault allegations are handled in the military.

    Democratic Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, 47, has been another sharp critic of Congress' handling of harassment claims.

    “There is a broken system,” Jeffries said on MSNBC on Dec. 5. “It has not delivered accountability. It has been intimidating for women to come forward who have experienced a hostile work environment or inappropriate behavior and I think our focus should be on fixing that.”

    Jeffries, who has represented part of New York in Congress for four years, said that Conyers' decision to retire was the right one and that Congress needs to hold all members accountable to the same standards.

    On the Republican side of the aisle, lawmakers have been grappling with sexual misconduct of their own, but are not under the same generational pressure as the Democrats.

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    Arizona Rep. Trent Franks quit Thursday after complaints of sexual misconduct by two women. His resignation came after House Speaker Paul Ryan confronted him and told him he was recommending an ethics investigation.

    Republican Rep. Blake Farenthold from Texas is facing his own ethics investigation, which began in 2015 after a settlement with a former staffer who accused him of sexual harassment and discrimination based on her gender. 

    Democrats are quick to accuse Republicans of tolerating alleged abuse. President Donald Trump was elected after he was accused of sexual misconduct by at least 16 women. Trump endorsed Alabama’s Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore, who has been accused of making sexual advances toward teenage girls. Moore has repeatedly denied the claims and ignored calls to drop out of the race.

    On Monday, Gillibrand joined four other senators calling on Trump to resign over his own sexual misconduct allegations, prompting the president to call her a “lightweight Senator” and “total flunky” in a tweet early Tuesday.

    He said Gillibrand, "who would come to my office 'begging' for campaign contributions not so long ago (and would do anything for them), is now in the ring fighting against Trump."

    Gillibrand fired back that she would not be silenced by a "sexist smear."

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