Skip to content

‘Plain old sticktoitiveness’: What it means to be dean of the House

Kentucky Republican takes over the title after death of Don Young

Rep. Harold Rogers, R-Ky., speaks with reporters at the Capitol in 2015. He now holds the title of dean of the House.
Rep. Harold Rogers, R-Ky., speaks with reporters at the Capitol in 2015. He now holds the title of dean of the House. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

When Rep. Hal Rogers traveled thousands of miles to Alaska to visit Coast Guard facilities years ago, his colleague Don Young made sure he got a real taste of the 49th state. 

Young knew that Rogers’ wife, Cynthia, loved to fish, so the former tugboat captain took the couple out to a special fishing spot.

“Well, she was catching fish, big fish, and no one enjoyed it more than Don Young,” Rogers said. “He was squealing with laughter as he watched her enjoy catching those fish.”

That memory came rushing back after Young died Friday at age 88. “He was bigger than life,” Rogers said. He shared his love of Alaska, and now he passes on something else to his fellow Republican — the title of dean of the House.

Young served in the chamber for almost a half-century, roughly three-quarters of the time Alaska has been part of the union. He came to Congress in 1973. 

Rogers hasn’t served quite that long. He began his own first term in 1981, the same year Ronald Reagan became president. But it’s enough to make the Kentucky Republican the dean of the House, meaning he has the longest continuous tenure of any current member.

He’s seen seven presidents and hundreds of lawmakers come and go. “It’s been an experience I never expected, but I am humbled and thrilled,” Rogers said of his four decades in Congress.

Right behind him is Rep. Chris Smith, who was sworn in the very same day. When seniority rankings are tied, it goes by alphabetical order — which means the New Jersey Republican lost by a letter. 

Had Smith won his first bid for Congress in 1978, he would’ve had a full term on Rogers. He does have an edge in one metric, though. Just 27 when he assumed office, Smith is now 69. He reached the congressional half-life mark a while ago. 

The 84-year-old Rogers is still getting there, with 15,052 days spent in Congress, or 48.9 percent of his life.

None of them can match the late Rep. John D. Dingell, who was about a year shy of 60 years of House service when he retired in 2015. The Democrat remains the dean of deans, claiming the title for a record 10 congresses while representing the Southeast Michigan district now held by his widow, Rep. Debbie Dingell. He died in 2019.

All the recent deans had a few things in common, Rogers said. They got good at passing bills, mentored younger members and won over their constituents time after time.

“And perseverance,” he added. “Plain old sticktoitiveness.”

The tradition of naming a dean dates back to the early 19th century, according to the House historian. It was modeled after the English Parliament, and in past centuries, the member was called the “father of the House.” 

These days, the title is seen as a mark of respect and comes with a key ceremonial duty — administering the oath of office to the House speaker at the beginning of each Congress.

Rogers is looking forward to that. He predicts Republicans will prevail in the 2022 midterms and imagines swearing in now-Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy.

He also hopes a 2018 precedent Young set will stick around for him too. The Alaskan helped tweak the GOP conference’s internal rules to allow the dean of the House to serve on the Republican Steering Committee, provided the dean is a Republican. 

“That was a wise move on his part and on the part of leadership,” Rogers said. “I think just the experience qualifies that person, whomever it is, to serve — to help pick good members of the committees of the House.”

Ryan Kelly contributed to this report.

Recent Stories

Vilsack says House proposal threatens farm bill coalition

House Legislative Branch spending bill would boost Capitol Police, GAO

Trump’s mini-mes in uniform are waging war on American institutions

Fong elected to fill McCarthy’s seat in California

Key results from primaries in Kentucky, Georgia, Oregon and Idaho

Biden touts veterans care in state he can’t afford to lose