WASHINGTON — The graying Capitol got a jolt of youth earlier this month when a new class of House lawmakers, smartphones in hand, descended upon Washington for their freshman orientation.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, 29, used Instagram to show her followers around the historic complex and complained about being mistaken for an intern. Rashida Tlaib, the Michigan congresswoman-elect who at 42 is still about 15 years younger than the average member, posted a selfie from the House floor with the caption: “Congress just got spicier folks.”
But this ambitious class of younger members has entered a Washington where age and power seem more intertwined than ever before. Make that old age and power.
Donald Trump is the oldest man ever elected to the presidency. Ruling the Senate is Mitch McConnell, 76, along with key committee chairs including Richard Shelby, 84, and Chuck Grassley, 85. And, perhaps most jarring to these freshmen, three Democrats in their late 70s are running unopposed in elections this week for the top leadership spots in the House, 12 years after they first led the House together.
Nancy Pelosi, 78, and her two top deputies, Steny Hoyer, 79, of Maryland and Jim Clyburn, 78, of South Carolina, would make up the oldest leadership trio for Democrats since at least the beginning of the last century, with a combined age of 235. The freshman Democrats, by contrast, are the youngest group of newly elected members since at least 2002. Their average age is 45, which is a drop of eight years from the freshman Democrats of 2016, according to Casey Burgat of the nonpartisan R Street Institute, a nonpartisan organization that promotes free markets.
The septuagenarian lock on power on the Democratic side of the House has rankled young progressives and helped to fuel the restlessness behind the attempt by a small group of “Never Nancy” rebels to block Pelosi from becoming speaker, even though no one is running against her.
“The party is being taken over by younger people, and my generation can do this the easy way or the hard way,” said Howard Dean, 70, the former Vermont governor and former Democratic National Committee chairman, who said he supports Pelosi’s bid for speaker but believes deputy leadership should be younger. “Old institutional leadership always resists change, but it’s important we have that change.”
Seth Moulton, 40, the Massachusetts Democrat who is leading the anti-Pelosi contingent, has been careful not to center the case against her on her age. But he has called for a “new generation of leadership,” and pointed to the new slate of young and diverse members-elect — 12 of whom have vowed not to support Pelosi — as an implicit rebuke of the old guard.
“The American people voted for change,” Moulton said. “If we respond as a party by just reinstalling the same status quo leadership we’ve had since 2006, I think we’ve let down the American people.”
Still, even some of the freshmen who took on longtime lawmakers to win their own seats — like Ocasio-Cortez and Massachusetts’ Ayanna Pressley — are considered likely to back Pelosi, who has been flipping members opposed to her and seems increasingly in line to reclaim the top spot.
Pelosi is running on her longtime experience making deals in Washington, arguing that no one else could get the job done as well. “Rookies need not apply,” Rahm Emanuel, President Barack Obama’s former chief of staff, tweeted in support of Pelosi Tuesday.
And some critics — including constituents who showed up at a town hall for Moulton last week — have painted the effort to unseat her as ageist or sexist.
““I almost feel like I’m targeted,” one of them told Moulton. “I’m old and I’m a woman.”
Washington has long run on seniority, and that has been especially true of the House, where hopeful members can hang on for decades to gain a chance at a coveted committee chairmanship. That long, patient wait for clout is about to pay off for some in the New England delegation.
But last year’s Congress, one of the oldest ever, set a standard for aging in place.
The longer a member of Congress serves, the more time that member has had to build support he or she can draw on during leadership elections, meaning that power begets more power.
“Members of the House and the Senate, they don’t care how old their leaders are; they want to know what their leaders are going to do for them,” said Jeffrey Berry, a professor of political science at Tufts University. “A party leader who’s been around a lot of years has done a lot of favors.’’
Republicans have taken steps to break the hold of seniority, including creating a six-year term limit for committee chairmanships. The House GOP leaders — outgoing Speaker Paul Ryan, 48, and Kevin McCarthy of California and Steve Scalise of Louisiana, both 53 — are a historically young team.
That generational shift in the rival party makes it all the more frustrating for ambitious Democrats like those swept into office this month, who may well find they have scant opportunities to move up. In the past, talented younger House Democrats like Beto O’Rourke of Texas left to run for higher office rather than wait around for a couple of decades to gain any real power in the House.
“The House Democratic leadership has horribly mishandled the situation vis-a-vis new leadership over the years,” said Jim Manley, a Democratic political strategist. “This has been festering for years and should have been addressed at least a couple of election cycles ago.”
The brief House career of Patrick Murphy, a former congressman from Florida, offers a case in point. He was elected in 2012 at the age of 29. But he quickly realized there would be no way for him to move up the ranks anytime soon, and ran unsuccessfully in 2016 for Senate, instead of standing for reelection that year.
“It was like, ‘Well wait a minute, what are we doing here?’ ” Murphy said. “The Democrats unfortunately are going to be looked at as this old-guard party with no new faces, and that’s because the only place we have leadership is the House and they’re not necessarily fresh faces.”
In 2016, facing growing criticism, Pelosi mollified younger members by creating new leadership positions for them, but she has suggested it is not her job to find a replacement for herself.
“Do members want somebody anointed? I don’t think they do. The person has to emerge,” she said, according to The New York Times.
And many Democrats say Pelosi has been rightly rewarded by her party for her decades of legislative experience and canny political instincts.
“I have loads of respect for the piss and vinegar that young fresh blood brings into elected office,” said Larry Rasky, a longtime Massachusetts lobbyist. “But you definitely need to take a deep breath and say, What am I really trying to do? And why am I better equipped to do this than Nancy Pelosi, who all she did was get the Affordable Care Act through?”
Many in Massachusetts’ delegation have long hewed to the rules of seniority — and they are about to reap the benefits. The late Representative Joe Moakley positioned Richard Neal on the Ways and Means Committee, and finagled a seat on the powerful Rules Committee for Jim McGovern while he was on his deathbed. Nearly 20 years later, both men are set to become committee chairs. McGovern said Moakley told him: “Good waiters make good tips.”
And Eddie Bernice Johnson, the Texas congresswoman who will be the oldest Democrat in the House next session, according to The Washington Post, said age and experience are crucial to a successful Congress.
“I look forward to having the young, enthusiastic minds,” Johnson said. “I look forward to seeing them mature.”
Johnson, who was elected in 1992, is expected to ascend to the helm of the Science, Space and Technology Committee in the new Congress. It will be her first time chairing a full committee, at the age of 83.Globe correspondent Libby Berry contributed. Jess Bidgood can be reached at Jess.Bidgood@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter@jessbidgood. Liz Goodwin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @lizcgoodwin