Washington — There was a time when new members of Congress were seen and not heard, when the power of a committee chairman could strike terror in the hearts of younger colleagues, and all chairmen seemed to be older men. No more. The seniority system - under which the most senior members get the top committee jobs - is crumbling, and many members of Congress do not know what to make of it.
This week, Democratic members of the House voted, 130 to 124, to unseat the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, Les Aspin (D) of Wisconsin. On the Jan. 20 they will vote for his successor from among a burgeoning field of contenders - including Mr. Aspin himself.
Before the Aspin vote, House Banking Committee chairman Fernand J. St Germain (D) of Rhode Island - under investigation by the House Ethics Committee because of allegations of financial misconduct - fended off an attempt to unseat him as chairman.
In the decorous Senate there is a polite but intense contest between Sen. Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana and Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina over who should sit as ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee. Each has a plausible claim. Mr. Lugar was chairman when the Republicans controlled the Senate, and under most circumstances he would be the logical choice for the ranking minority post. But Mr. Helms is the more senior member of the Senate, having sacrificed his right to the Foreign Affairs chairmanship in 1983 to become head of the Agriculture Committee.
So both are invoking seniority to support their bids. Helms lost the early round this week when the committee voted unanimously in favor of Lugar. But Helms, who says it is time to ``put up or shut up'' about the seniority system, is appealing to the Senate Republican membership, which will vote on the dispute next week.
``The seniority system has taken its knocks before, but it is in more trouble now then ever,'' says Rep. Mel Price (D) of Illinois. He should know. Two years ago, Representative Aspin and his supporters staged a coup that resulted in the ouster of Mr. Price, despite his seniority. ``The seniority system may be in trouble because of this,'' Rep. Jim Moody (D) of Wisconsin said after the vote to oust Aspin, ``but it was already crippled when Les unseated Price.''
Seniority became the rule only in the 1920s. By the '50s, however, it was sanctified in both House and Senate. In the House, the ``College of Cardinals,'' as the almost all-powerful committee chairmen were called, determined what legislation, if any, would reach the floor.
By the '60s, many of the chairmen were conservative Southern Democrats who opposed much progressive legislation, such as the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts. Institutional reforms in the '70s led to the direct election of chairmen by the membership. One result, lawmakers say, is an increase in high-ranking committee members sensitive to the wishes of their colleagues.
The Helms-Lugar test, for example, is as much a referendum between the style of the moderate Indianian and the conservative Carolinian as it is a debate on seniority rights.
As for the Aspin case, the Wisconin congressman ran for the Armed Services chairmanship two years ago arguing that the committee was dominated by conservative Democrats who did not represent the majority of Democrats in the House. Once Aspin became chairman, however, he angered many of his colleagues by voting with Republicans in favor of the MX missile and aid to the Nicaraguan contras.
Many House Democrats also charged that he was overly sympathetic to Republican positions on military procurement reform and arms-control issues.
Aspin may well be reinstated by colleagues who sought only to ``send a message'' that he should support positions advocated by the Democratic majority. But that message chills some members, who are afraid it may be seen as a virtual declaration of open season on committee chairmen who take unpopular stands.