Skip to content

Seniority Is Getting Little Respect

Moments after Democrats voted to oust Energy and Commerce Chairman John Dingell (D-Mich.) in November 2008, then-Ways and Means Chairman Charlie Rangel offered reporters a pithy epitaph for the seniority system that the party had honored for decades: “It has been buried,” he said.

The New York Democrat’s assessment may have been hyperbolic. But 18 months after Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) toppled Dingell, the shadow races for gavels of two of the most powerful committees in the House show how much the value of a once-sacrosanct Democratic tradition has diminished.

Even as Democrats scramble to keep their grip on the majority, contests are shaping up for the party’s top slots on the Appropriations and Ways and Means committees.

And the key to both races could lie in the quarter of the Caucus elected in the past four years. Those lawmakers have little invested in the seniority system. Most won on change platforms, broke heavily for Waxman and then started the movement to strip Rangel’s chairmanship after his ethics wrist-slap in March.

Democrats already skipped over
second-ranking Rep. Pete Stark (D-Calif.) to hand the Ways and Means gavel to the less-controversial Rep. Sander Levin after Rangel stepped aside. But the Michigan Democrat faces an all-but-certain challenge from sixth-ranking Rep. Richard Neal (D-Mass.). Both men in recent weeks have dramatically ramped up their fundraising efforts for colleagues who will decide the likely contest after the midterm elections.

On Appropriations, Rep. Norm Dicks (D-Wash.) is the de facto incumbent in line for the gavel that Chairman David Obey will surrender with his retirement this year. The Wisconsin Democrat had barely announced his decision to end his 42-year House career last week when Rep. Chaka Fattah, more than halfway down the panel’s roster as its 21st-ranking member, declared he is seeking the post.

While most Democratic insiders don’t consider the Pennsylvania Democrat a serious threat at this point, Dicks said he is not taking anything for granted and is already making the rounds to lock down pledges of support from colleagues.

Fattah’s candidacy has ruffled some feathers in the Congressional Black Caucus, of which he is a member, since it challenges a seniority system that has rewarded long-serving black lawmakers with three full committee chairmanships and 18 subcommittee gavels. “We have worked hard, acquired the seniority, and I think there are some expectations that the CBC, Hispanic caucus members and others can look forward to,” said Homeland Security Chairman Bennie Thompson, a CBC member. The Mississippi Democrat said he was “certain” seniority would prevail in the contest to lead the spending panel, though he questioned whether Fattah would stay in the race and suggested senior CBC members could intervene.

“Those of us who’ve been here 14 to 16 years have supported the seniority rule, and I think that will put at risk potentially those benefits that many of the caucus members have enjoyed because of it,” he said.

But Democrats who have pushed to limit seniority’s reach argued that while still important, it has been frequently overlooked since the party moved in the 1970s to subject chairmen to votes of the full Caucus. Waxman, who entered the House in a large, reform-minded class shortly after Democrats implemented those changes, said his class was particularly concerned with chairmen who didn’t feel they had to be accountable to the rest of the party. “We had votes where we actually defeated some chairmen,” Waxman said. “Seniority is a very important factor, but it’s not the only consideration.”

Waxman surrogates used that argument with Democratic colleagues during his coup against Dingell — pointing out that Dingell had ousted a more senior chairman to first win the job in 1981. Ditto for Obey in 1994, Fattah noted. “I’m seeking the chairmanship under the same process that elected the current chairman,” he said.

The decline of the “Old Bulls” system hasn’t happened in a vacuum. Since reclaiming the majority in 2006, Democratic chairmen have found they are wielding lighter gavels as Speaker Nancy Pelosi has centralized power in her office.

The California Democrat gave a nod to the old way when she agreed to strip term limits for chairmen in the rules package for this Congress. But while she stayed officially neutral in the Dingell-Waxman battle, many in the Caucus saw her tacit blessing in the work that Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), her top lieutenant, did for Waxman. “What made the seniority system work was that people respected it,” one senior Democratic aide said. “When the Speaker said people aren’t entitled to their chairmanships, the Caucus got the message.”

The new order for chairmen comes against the backdrop of a subtler but more fundamental shake-up engineered by Pelosi and her leadership team. Pelosi notes that despite serving in the House for seven years before Democrats lost the majority, the first time she saw the inside of a Democratic Speaker’s office was when she moved in. Now, Pelosi and Hoyer host weekly meetings with the freshmen in her Capitol suite. They meet separately with the sophomores as regularly.

And Hoyer frequently leans on chairmen to allow newer Members to offer changes to bills that they are moving to ensure they get their names on legislative accomplishments. That push was evident Wednesday, as about two dozen new and vulnerable Democrats prepared to offer amendments to a science authorization bill.

“You can’t ignore the shifting makeup of your Caucus,” said Iowa Rep. Bruce Braley, a sophomore Democrat who nominated Waxman for the Energy and Commerce post in part by offering a stinging rebuke of Dingell’s tenure. “You have to be constantly cultivating relationships and demonstrating that you’re going to be a leader helping other members of the Caucus achieve their goals.”

One top aide saw another silver lining to the breakdown in seniority — it forces those angling for chairmanships, or hoping to keep them, to get into high gear helping the party raise much-needed campaign money. Indeed, of 23 committee chairmen, seven have yet to pay even half of their dues, according to an internal tally from late April. “In our current predicament, anything that forces chairmen to be more accountable to the caucus and get out there and raise money is a good thing,” the aide said.

Braley nevertheless called seniority “a critical factor to be considered.” And the system still has its outspoken defenders. Rep. John Lewis, who spoke on Dingell’s behalf in the race against Waxman on the importance of honoring the tradition, said the system has worked well over the years and should be respected unless someone shows they are not effective. Otherwise, the Georgia Democrat said, “You have a breakdown of the Caucus, and it would be every man and every woman for himself.”

Recent Stories

Senate sends surveillance reauthorization bill to Biden’s desk

Five races to watch in Pennsylvania primaries on Tuesday

‘You talk too much’— Congressional Hits and Misses

Senators seek changes to spy program reauthorization bill

Editor’s Note: Congress and the coalition-curious

Photos of the week ending April 19, 2024