July 20, 2020

Seemingly since the beginning of time, Congress has run on the principle of seniority.  Sure, it’s a way to determine who get which – and the best – real estate in the Capitol complex, but it’s also a way to keep Members (particularly Speakers) from making tough choices about who should chair committees.  Certainly, there have been plenty of contested races – particularly for leadership – but when it comes to the committees, for many years seniority ruled the day.  But like in the “real world” change, though sometimes imperceptible, comes to all of our institutions and Congress is not immune.

The House Republicans were the first to ditch seniority.  In ’94 Gingrich brought a command and control approach to naming Chairmen.  Nevertheless, House Democrats have been fairly rigorous in adhering to seniority.  For year, younger members have been forced to wait in a seemingly endless line just to get within arm’s length of a gavel.  For example, in the 110th Congress (’06), the average age of a chairman was 72 and average years of service was 33 years.  It is obvious how this can be a source of frustration and a disincentive to serving.

But cracks are showing within the Democratic caucus.  At the outset of 115th Congress as Speaker Pelosi battled to get the support necessary to ensure her leadership position, one of the complaints – particularly from younger members of the caucus – was about strict seniority.  While no change was made to caucus rules, there have been small skirmishes over committee and subcommittee vacancies that portend the demise of the seniority system.  Those skirmishes look like they may break out into an all-out shooting war should Democrats control the House in 2021.

One example is at the powerful House Appropriations Committee.  Nita Lowey (D-NY) is retiring, and while Marcy Kaptur (D-OH) (74 years old, and in Congress since ’83) is the next in line, this gavel will be heavily contested.  Both Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman-Schultz (D-FL) and Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) have openly challenged Kaptur (see attached letter from John Larson (D-CT) to his Democrat colleagues in support of DeLauro).  In addition, should Eliot Engle lose his seat (he is down by 10,000 votes with just 40,000 absentee ballots left to count), the gavel for House Foreign Relations will be up for grabs.  Under strict seniority, the gavel would pass to Congressman Brad Sherman (D-CA), but Congressman Greg Meeks has mounted a campaign for chairman and his efforts have been endorsed by the CBC.  As CBC Chairwoman Karen Bass (D-CA) told a reporter, CBC members prize seniority, “until we don’t.”

Should the chairmanships of Appropriations and Foreign relations go to someone other than the next in line, we would expect to see challenges to seniority – once the exception — become the rule.