House Seniority and Committee Leadership

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Give yourself a quiz. Which political party in the House chooses its committee leadership positions primarily by seniority and which one routinely selects leaders who are not first in line in seniority?

I would guess that most readers would think the Republicans choose primarily by seniority and the Democrats don't. After all, aren't Republicans hierarchy-minded while Democrats are more freethinkers?

But the fact is that it's the other way around. House Democrats' choices for committee chairmen in the 110th Congress are in almost every case the most senior Democrats on the committee, while 12 of the 21 Republicans chosen to be ranking minority members have less seniority than at least one other Republican on the committee.

How did this come to be? It's the result of different rules, established by each party after a big landslide victory–the Democrats in 1974, the Republicans in 1994–and how members have adjusted to them since they came into effect. There are strong process arguments, I think, for each party's rules and for the way they have worked out. But each party is stubbornly different, as is reflected even in terminology: House Democrats call their collective members a caucus; House Republicans call theirs a conference.

The Democratic rules were the product of the late Phillip Burton, whose San Francisco seat is held today by incoming Speaker Nancy Pelosi. After the 1974 election, Burton and other liberals wanted to have committee chairmen elected one by one by the Democratic caucus; the previous procedure was to have the caucus vote on a list on which in each case the senior Democrat was the nominee for chairman.

Speaker Carl Albert made a concession: There would be an election for chairman of a particular committee if a certain number of members signed a petition calling for one. Presumably Albert thought that few members would want to arouse the ire of a chairman by signing such a petition. Burton got around this by getting the required number of members to sign petitions calling for an election of every chairman. No offense, guys; we're not after you, we just want elections for everyone. Albert gave in, and Democrats have been electing chairmen ever since.

If that's so, why have they chosen to ratify the senior members 32 years after Burton's ploy? Because members have adjusted to the system. In 1974, three elderly committee chairmen were ousted–Edward Hébert of Armed Services, Wright Patman of Banking, and Bob Poage of Agriculture. Hébert and Poage lost primarily because of their conservative voting records; the caucus had a big liberal majority. Patman lost despite his liberal voting record because he was seen as too old and no longer up to the job.

In response, conservative Democrats in line for chairmanships soon began adjusting their voting records. Jamie Whitten of Mississippi, then No. 2 on the Appropriations Committee, suddenly starting getting Americans for Democratic Action vote ratings 30 points higher than before. When his turn came, he got the chair. Also, members who were getting on in years or who were in danger of being perceived as not up to the job started retiring before their turn came up. Better to fade quietly away than to be humiliated as poor Wright Patman was.

So, although the new Democratic committee chairmen of the 110th Congress will be a pretty old bunch, notably older and more senior than their counterparts–the ranking minority members–they are also in I think every case highly able people fully in command of their very considerable faculties. Certainly that's true of John Dingell of Energy and Commerce (80, first elected in December 1955), Charles Rangel of Ways and Means (76, first elected in 1970), David Obey of Appropriations (68, first elected in April 1969), Henry Waxman of Government Oversight (67, first elected 1974), John Conyers of Judiciary (77, first elected in 1964), Ike Skelton of Armed Services (75 later this month, first elected in 1976), George Miller of Education and the Workforce (61, first elected in 1974), Barney Frank of Financial Services (66, first elected in 1980), Tom Lantos of International Relations (78, first elected in 1980), Louise Slaughter of Rules (77, first elected in 1986), and James Oberstar of Transportation and Infrastructure (72, first elected in 1974). Average age: 72. Average seniority: 33 years.

The process argument for Burton's reform is pretty straightforward. It tends to produce able chairmen who are in line with majority opinion in the caucus. You want to have committees that will tend to produce legislation that can be supported by most members of the majority party and that will be capable of passage in the whole House. And that's what Democrats have now.

The Republican rules are different. After the big Republican sweep in 1994, Speaker-to-be Newt Gingrich pretty much named committee chairmen by himself, confident that he would have majority support in the conference. Gingrich passed over members he thought had been too accommodating to Democrats in the past or out of line with his views on issues. Institutionally, House Republicans set up a steering committee–with five votes for the party leader and two for the then majority leader–which chose nominees for committee chairmen who have been routinely ratified by the full conference. Those seeking chairmanships are expected to show the steering committee their legislative goals and demonstrate their party bona fides by raising lots of money for Republican candidates, both endangered incumbents and promising challengers.

In addition, House Republicans set a six-year term limit on chairmanships (though they waived that for outgoing Rules Chairman David Dreier). That means there are frequent fights for chairmanships or, this year, ranking minority member positions, and many members striving to please the leadership.

The process argument here is pretty straightforward. Like the Democrats' system, it tends to produce able chairmen who are in line with majority opinion in the conference. In addition, it tends even more than the Democrats' system to strengthen the party leadership, with its heavy representation on the Steering Committee.

The result is that a dozen Republicans will be ranking minority members even though they are not the most senior Republicans on their committees. They include Jerry Lewis of Appropriations (72, first elected in 1978), Buck McKeon of Education and the Workforce (68, first elected in 1992), Spencer Bachus of Financial Services (59 later this month, first elected in 1992), Tom Davis of Government Reform (57, first elected in 1994), Peter King of Homeland Security (62, first elected in 1992), Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of International Affairs (54, first elected in August 1989), Lamar Smith of Judiciary (59, first elected in 1986), John Mica of Transportation and Infrastructure (63, first elected in 1992), and Jim McCrery of Ways and Means (57, first elected in 1988). They all strike me as able members. But they're considerably younger and less senior than their Democratic counterparts. Average age: 61. Average seniority: 17 years.

Of course, one reason Republican committee leaders tend to be younger than Democrats is that in the years before 1994 not as many Republicans as Democrats stayed in the House for years and years. It just wasn't that satisfying being in what seemed to be a permanent minority.

Note: I haven't included all committees in either list. The leaders of the Intelligence, Budget, and Standards of Official Conduct committees are chosen directly by the party leaders, without regard to seniority, and there typically are limits on years of service on them. The House Administration, Small Business, and Veterans Affairs committees have relatively limited jurisdiction, and I haven't included them on either list.

Which party's system is better? You can make process arguments for and against either one. But both, in my opinion, are a vast improvement on the seniority system, which came into existence in the 1930s and 1940s, when the Democratic Party was split down the middle between liberals and conservatives and Speaker Sam Rayburn wanted to avoid conflict and so refused to challenge senior members. That produced a lot of Democratic chairmen who were far out of line with the majority of their caucus and an unfortunately large number of Democratic chairmen and ranking Republicans who were senile and incompetent.

Both parties have now moved beyond that.