Seniority in Congress was once very powerful but it is becoming less and less prominent. It once held significant sway over the institution and its members. Times have changed and so has Congress. The members grew tired of the hurdles that seniority created and, Congress being an institution of its membership, changed the rules or norms. While seniority, both the rule and norm, have become far less prominent, it is an important concept in understanding Congress. In this paper I will define both the seniority rule and the seniority norm, explain why each is important, and discuss the changes to seniority and explain why they have occurred.
First I want to briefly talk about what seniority means in the Congressional sense. There are two forms of seniority in Congress. These are the seniority rule and the seniority norm. The seniority rule is a written rule in congress that the committee chair will go to the most senior member of the committee. This rule has changed in certain ways and can be challenged which I will talk about in more detail a bit later. The seniority norm is an unwritten norm of behavior or custom. While it is unwritten it has been very important to the inner workings of Congress.
The seniority rule was and still is very important in determining leadership in Congress. Each committee chair is usually the most senior member of that particular committee. There are, however, some exceptions. For example the most senior member of the House Appropriations Committee is Rep. C.W. Bill Young. He is not, however, the chair of the Appropriations Committee. The chair is Rep. Harold Rogers. Now according to the seniority rule Rep. Young should be the chair of this committee, but as I said earlier times have changed and so has Congress. There are several reasons why Rep. Young might not be the chair. One of these reasons might be that he didn’t want the chair position. It has been known to occur that a more senior member surrenders the chair to a less senior member willingly. Another reason this may have occurred is that the party decided Rep. Rogers was better suited for the chair position and would better for the party as a whole. Though there are these exceptions to the seniority, they are relatively rare.
The seniority norm is in many respects more important in shaping Congress than the seniority rule even though it is unwritten. The seniority norm is all about respect. Respect in Congress is not all that easy to come by and once gotten should not be taken lightly. Having the respect of your fellow members in Congress gives you a great deal of influence. Generally, the more senior you are, the more respect you have. The more respect you have, the more influence you have. One of the greatest examples of this is Sen. Robert Byrd who served in Congress for 57 years. He is the longest serving senator of all time and was one of the most respected. He was a member of the Democratic Party but was respected by Republicans and Democrats alike. Because he was so respected he was listened to. He had great sway over the senate and other members took what he said very seriously. Through his seniority Sen. Byrd was able gain respect and in turn influence the body in a way less senior senators could not. The seniority norm may be unwritten and may have become less prominent but it is still very important to the institution.
Below is an example of the respect that Sen. Byrd held. He is shown talking about his service in Congress. There are a few things to look out for when watching this video. The first is that the chair recognizes Sen. Byrd as the "very distinguished senator." This is a subtle way of showing the importance of seniority. It shows that while changes have been made, seniority is still embedded in the minds of those in Congress. Another thing to look for is the people that Sen. Byrd thanks before he goes into he speech. He thanks both his majority leader, Sen. Harry Reid, and minority leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell. He also recognize Sen. Patrick Leahy who is the third most senior member at this time. It is important to note these recognitions because it shows that seniority is still very important to Sen. Byrd.
Another example that I have below is of Sen. Barrow talking about an editorial written by Sen. John Dingel. Sen. Dingel is the Dean of the House and the most senior member. This is a good example because it shows that one's seniority not only helps them, but also other members of their party. Sen. Barrow uses the mention of Sen. Dingel's name to use his seniority. It is almost as if he is talking in place of Sen. Dingel. Sen. Barrow is trying to convince Congress to work together to get things done. He uses the words of Sen. John Dingel, who he mentions several times through his one minute speech, to gather more support for his cause.
Over the past several decades changes have been made regarding seniority in Congress. When the seniority rule was first created it was meant to be just that, a rule. Now it is more of a guideline. This change occurred because in the 1950s and 60s many of the safest districts were in the Democratic South. This meant that these southern democrats were repeatedly reelected and became the most senior members of Congress. Following the seniority rule they were give the chairs on many committees. Being more conservative than northern democrats, they often disagreed with other democrats in Congress. The Democratic Party wanted to fix this and get the southern democrats out of paper. They changed the seniority rule and allowed for secret ballot elections to choose and replace committee chairs. This made it possible for parties to remove chairs who were more senior but not necessarily “fit” for the chair.
Other changes that were made to seniority were not changed through written rule but through precedent and example. The change of the seniority rule got the ball rolling which led to a steady decline in the seniority norm. Today it is no longer impossible for freshman congressman to get things done. Over the past couple decades freshmen have started to join together and oppose the seniority norm. They realized that quantity could overcome a certain sense of “quality” or seniority. Congress is an institution of its membership and with a large portion of the membership, change can be made. This was made prominent with the recent large, newly elected republican freshman in the House. More senior members have become weary of the new members because of their large numbers.
Below is an example of how times have changed and how seniority has become less important when trying to influence Congress. In this example Sen. Patrick Leahy talks about his seniority and how things have been done in the past. He tries to use his seniority to influence the body. In this example he references his years of service several times. Ultimately, however, it is the less senior majority leader that holds sway over the body. Sen. Reid accomplishes his goal in the end and sets an incredible precedent. It is important to note, however, the way in which Sen. Reid addresses and refers to Sen. Leahy. When Sen. Leahy requests to speak, Sen. Reid immediately yields and says “absolutely I’ll yield.” Then he is very delicate in disagreeing with the more senior senator and even says he is absolutely right. This shows that seniority in Congress is not dead. It shows it is less influential but most definitely still around.
Seniority as a custom and norm has been around since Congress was formed. Its prominence may have taken a crushing blow in the late 20th century but it still remains a guiding principle in the institution today. There are few leaders in the House and Senate today that have not earned their title or position. These leaders may not be the most senior but are senior in their own right. These leaders also take the advice and counsel of their more senior colleagues. Seniority still has its perks and if used in the right way can be a powerful influence. The important thing to remember is that while it has been weakened, seniority is still very much alive in the United States Congress.
Oleszek, Walter J. Congressional Procedures and the Policy Process. Washington, D.C.: CQ, 2007. Print.
Smith, Steven S., Jason M. Roberts, and Wielen Ryan J. Vander. The American Congress. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2009. Print.