• U.S.


10 minute read
Gerald Clarke

ALL things are changing,” Republican Leader Hugh Scott told his Senate colleagues not long ago. “And we are changing with them. Omnia mutantur, et nos mutamur in illis.” Right on, Senator Scott! Congress may be changing, but at what a pace. About as often as the planet Pluto swings around the sun, Congress does indeed bestir itself, examines the archaic rules by which it conducts the nation’s business and gently blows away some of the accumulated dust of more than 180 years. But never enough to disturb one tradition —the hallowed rule of seniority—that has often prevented Congress, whether liberal or conservative, Democratic or Republican, from working effectively to represent the will of the electorate.

The effect of the seniority system on the Federal Government can be explained by three facts: 1) most of the real work in Congress is done in and by committees; 2) the chairmen of these committees have vast, often dictatorial influence over the legislation that falls within their realms; 3) with almost no exceptions, these chairmen have gained their exalted positions for the simple reason that they have been on their committees longer than anyone else in the majority party, which, of course, always controls the committees. The seniority rule thus gives the U.S. the peculiar distinction of having the only legislative gerontocracy on the globe.

A Greater Degree. Consider the results: twelve of the 16 Senate committee chairmen are 65 and over; five of these are in their 70s, and one is 80. Fourteen of the 21 chairmen in the House of Representatives are 65 and over, seven in their 70s, two in their 80s. The figures are comparable for the Republicans and will be about the same in the new Congress, despite the death, retirement, or defeat in the recent elections of several powerful patriarchs.

Admittedly, age is not an automatic disability. Some statesmen—like Churchill or De Gaulle—come into their own when those around them are heading for the nursing home and the checkers table. But one does not have to join the youth cult to suggest that length of tenure should not be the sole criterion for choosing the men who help determine the country’s future.

Despite some restraints instituted in recent years, chairmen on many committees still control the agenda and can bring up a bill at their own convenience. In some committees a chairman can refuse to bring up a bill altogether. Mississippi’s James Eastland, 66, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and one of the most notorious racists in the upper body, has often ignored and sometimes killed civil rights bills by that method. Through similar control of procedures, Wilbur Mills, the Representative of a rural Arkansas constituency, has as much as or more power than the President in determining changes in tax, welfare and Social Security laws, simply because primogeniture has given him the chairmanship of the House Ways and Means Committee (even his opponents, however, concede that he is able and conscientious).

Control of the agenda is only the beginning of the chairman’s powers. He rewards his supporters and punishes those who vote against him by granting or withholding favors. He can even reward or punish their constituents by influencing the allocation of federal grants and the placement of installations. Since charity begins at home, he can almost always point to the many benefits seniority has brought his own district.

Marginal Role. The congressional seniority system is thus the last and most important stronghold of a near-medieval system of fealty. The House Armed Services Committee, for example, is subdivided into 21 other committees, each with great if somewhat lesser power than the whole, and each with a great if somewhat lesser chairman. While he owes allegiance to his chairman, the head of a subcommittee still has considerable power of his own and considerable authority over those under him. As a result of so much power being concentrated at the top, there is virtually none at the bottom. In the House, where the seniority system is most oppressive, a new member is virtually impotent. Whatever his talent or promise, he must resign himself to a marginal role in Congress for his first few terms. “The damage you never see is the worst,” says Columbia University Philosopher Charles Frankel, who watched Capitol Hill from 1965 to 1967 as Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs. “Young, bright Congressmen come to Washington full of ideas and interest, and shortly become discouraged.”

Many of the men who run Congress are stodgy and opposed to new ideas. But their age is only part of the problem. To get to the top they must be elected over and over again; generally those constituencies that give such automatic approval are in rural, one-party districts or are dominated by big-city machines. In either case their Congressmen are unlikely to be responsive to change and sensitive to the strong currents that buffet junior and more vulnerable colleagues from swing districts.

There are, to be sure, significant arguments in favor of seniority. It provides stability and expertness, it eliminates the possibility that outside pressure groups or cliques could elect compliant chairmen, and it guarantees access to power to representatives of minority groups—if they will only wait their turns. Without the seniority system, for example, it is doubtful that Harlem’s flamboyant Adam Clayton Powell could ever have become head of the powerful House Education and Labor Committee. Moreover, it is by no means true that senior Congressmen are all incompetent or senile. One case in point is Carl Hayden, who was an able chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee for most of his 14-year tenure, until his retirement in 1968 at the age of 91. Sometimes, too, a good chairman, secure in his fortress of seniority, can use his position to kill or modify a popular but unwise measure that colleagues support. Over the years, New York’s Emanuel Celler, 82, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, has quietly smothered several injudicious anti-subversive and anti-crime bills.

Still, the price of these boons is exorbitant. No other American institution respects seniority the way Congress does. “Of all the institutional failings of American Government,” says Political Scientist James MacGregor Burns, “the seniority system of Congress is by far the most serious.”

Several Alternatives. Paraphrasing Churchill, House Majority Leader Carl Albert admits that the seniority system may be “the worst possible system—except for all the alternatives.” Albert notwithstanding, several alternatives have been proposed by angry congressional juniors. One plan would give a party caucus the authority to choose a chairman (or for the minority party, the ranking member) from that party’s three most senior members on a committee. Even such a limited change might have dramatic impact. Thus Stuart Symington, a Viet Nam dove, could be chosen to replace the hawkish John Stennis as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and James Eastland could be bumped for Sam Ervin Jr., a scholarly constitutionalist, as head of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Obviously, the system would not always benefit one faction; it could work to advance conservatives as well as liberals.

The proposal would probably have less impact on the House, however, where committees are much larger and where the Democrats have no fewer than four of the 65-and-over set patiently waiting to take the place of Chairman L. Mendel Rivers, 65, on the Armed Services Committee. But the plan would at least give the rank and file some leeway in picking its leaders. More important, it would put a chairman on notice that he held his post by approval and not by right.

A second proposal would give the Speaker of the House authority to choose chairmen from the entire membership of the majority. Since he is chosen by all members of his party, the theory goes, the Speaker would be sensitive to their needs and demands. Instead of the system of divided responsibility that now prevails, one man could be charged with leadership. In fact, this was the system used by the House until 1910, when Congressmen revolted against the autocratic rule of Speaker Joseph Cannon. Better 21 dukes than one monarch, opponents might well argue.

A third suggestion would put the choice of chairmen up to the caucus, which could choose from any of its members. This would be the most democratic method and, in theory anyway, would allow choices to be made on merit alone. The principal objection to this plan is that it could lead to all sorts of unseemly plotting and bargaining; conceivably, it might take Congress weeks to organize itself after every election.

Still a fourth plan would either set an age limit. 65 say, for any chairman, or limit his tenure in the post. (A dethroned chairman could still remain in Congress, of course, since the Constitution, which sets a minimum age of 25 for Representatives, 30 for Senators, does not provide a maximum.) Most other institutions have mandatory retirement ages; only last month Pope Paul VI ruled that cardinals over 80 could henceforth neither hold “Vatican Office” nor vote in a papal election. If chairmen were forced to step down at 65, three-fourths of the Senate chairmen and two-thirds of the House chairmen in the current Congress would have been replaced. William Colmer, 80, an unreconstructed Southerner, for example, would have given way to Richard Boiling, 54, a liberal from Missouri, as head of the House Rules Committee. The same plan, however, ‘would have pushed aside George Mahon, 70, the able chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, for Jamie Whitten, a Mississippian who is best known as a regular sponsor of anti-Negro measures.

Other Faults. In both House and Senate, younger members are vigorously pressing for changes in the seniority system in the 92nd Congress. Indeed, Republican House elders, who have no chairmanships and no immediate prospects, are likely to acquiesce to the recent recommendation of a G.O.P. study group. Under this scheme, the Committee on Committees would nominate top-ranking committee members, and the caucus—all the Republicans in the House—could either accept the choice or demand another. The Democrats, however, have yet to come up with a reform plan that would appeal to their veteran Congressmen.

An end to the oppressive rule of seniority would not cure all the ills that plague Congress; to a great extent, Congress is still the legislative body designed for and by 18th century rural gentry. Research staffs are often inadequate. There is far too much duplicated effort and far too little concern for even the rudimentary lessons of modern management. While it has appropriated millions for computers for the executive agencies, the House is only now buying itself one so that it can understand where all the federal billions are going. The Senate apparently feels that adding machines are enough. Compared to the seniority system, however, other faults seem small. No great improvement can be expected so long as power is placed in the hands of men for no other reason than that they endure.

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