Capitol Hill turnover runs high

Next election may further reduce the number of career lawmakers on Hill

The combative 107th Congress is renowned as fiercely partisan. But voters might be surprised to hear another description of today's House and Senate that may be equally apt: inexperienced.

Inexperienced? How can that be? Four of the six longest-serving senators of all time are still in office. The most senior House member was first elected in 1955. Some days the cloakrooms seem full of lawmakers talking about their advice to President Kennedy – or, in Strom Thurmond's case, FDR.

It's true nevertheless. A spate of retirements and competitive elections through the 1990s has today resulted in a House and a Senate full of junior members. It's not the greenest Congress of recent times. But if it were a baseball team, the sports pages would say it was "rebuilding."

At times the relative rawness of Washington's legislators has complicated life for the leadership of both parties. It's also a reminder that, despite the high return rate of incumbents, the Capitol is not just full of old bulls. Throughout American history the nation's legislature has been renewed by periodic waves of newcomers.

"It's good to remember when you hear about high reelection rates that these things tend to be cyclical, and the capacity for change is there," says Thomas E. Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and coauthor of a recent book on vital statistics of Congress.

This November, that change will be most evident in South Carolina. For the first time in generations, Strom Thurmond's name won't be on a state ballot.

Senator Thurmond, a Republican who is retiring, is more than just the dean of the current Senate. He's the longest-serving Senator of all time, with seniority dating back to 1956. His departure will represent a promotion of sorts for his colleague in the South Carolina delegation, Sen. Ernest Hollings (D). Elected in 1966, Hollings is currently the longest-serving junior senator in US history.

Other current senators who are veterans even by historical standards include Sen. Robert Byrd (D) of West Virginia, and Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts. Typically, House membership churns more quickly than that of the Senate. Representatives often aspire to higher offices, such as governorships, or the Senate itself. Even so, today's House contains some members who might be judged old bulls. Rep. John Dingell (D) of Michigan was first elected in 1955, to fill a seat that had been held by his father. Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D), also from Michigan, assumed office in 1965.

But such senior lawmakers are now the exception, not the rule. Over the past ten years or so, Congress has seen a high rate of retirements by members planning a second career. Witness Sen. Fred Thompson (R) of Tennessee, who declined to run for reelection and is reported to in serious negotiations for a continuing role in the TV cop drama "Law and Order." Competitive elections through much of the 1990s – particularly in '92, '94, and '96 – added to the churning of House and Senate memberships.

Almost two-thirds of current House members first won election in 1992 or later. The 107th Congress began with 45 senators having served six years or less – the chamber's largest number of rookies since 1981.

Look at it this way: many of the senators on the lower rungs of the seniority ladder weren't even born when Thurmond, then governor, ran for president as a states' rights, segregationist Dixiecrat in 1948.

Today Congress "is relatively inexperienced – a least compared with the seniority-worshipping legislature of the past," concludes the 2002 edition of Congressional Quarterly's "Politics in America."

Some experts think that the lack of veterans makes the machinery of Congress run less smoothly.

Rookie legislators have less experience with the compromises necessary to keep bills moving in a democracy – and may be more prone to see lawmakers from the other party as ideological adversaries, not colleagues with a different point of view.

This tendency towards stridency may be reinforced by the fact that new national lawmakers, as a whole, have less experience with politics on all levels than their forebears. Declining percentages of incoming members of Congress have served in state legislatures or city councils. For the first time, more House members now list their previous occupation as "business" than "law."

But whatever its short-term effects, the turnover of legislators is simply part of the great circle of American political life, say many experts. Recent history has seen a number of such periods of mass exodus, followed by a steady rebuilding of average seniority.

Often the influx of new members and new energy creates momentum for institutional change. Thus new Democrats in the "Watergate baby" class of 1974 pushed through reforms that limited the power of entrenched committee chairmen, and brought more democracy (with a small "d") to House decisionmaking.

More recently, the GOP influx that returned control of the House to Republicans in 1994 had a somewhat similar effect on the other side of the political aisle. Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich did not feel beholden to the senior wing of his party, and he curbed its power through such mechanisms as mandatory term limits for committee and subcommittee heads.

"Gingrich vested even more power in party leaders than had been the case under Democrats," notes David Rohde, a political science professor and expert on Congress at Michigan State University. "That kind of thing changes policy outcomes, too."

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