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The Seniority System in Congress

  • George Goodwin (a1)

The seniority system ordinarily rates no more than two or three pages in books devoted to Congress. There is likely to be a brief description and a weighing of the arguments, pro and con, followed generally by the conclusion that the system is a poor one; occasionally an author will defend it stoutly. Regardless of the conclusions, the analyses are rarely thorough. This article attempts to fill a gap in the literature on Congress by describing and analyzing various aspects of its seniority system.

It is well to remember at the outset that very few human institutions ignore seniority entirely. Champ Clark, in his autobiography, noted that it is observed in all the affairs of life:

No sane man would for one moment think of making a graduate from West Point a full general, or one from Annapolis an admiral, or one from any university or college chief of a great newspaper, magazine or business house. A priest or a preacher who has just taken orders is not immediately made a bishop, archbishop or cardinal. In every walk of life “men must tarry at Jericho till their beards are grown.”

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1 Clark, Champ, My Quarter Century in American Politics (New York, 1920), Vol. I, p. 209.

2 Galloway, George, The Legislative Process in Congress (New York, 1953), p. 367.

3 Griffith, Ernest S., Congress: Its Contemporary Role (New York, 1956), p. 18.

4 New York Times, Feb. 26, 1958.

5 Interview with George Reedy, Senate Democratic Policy Committee, March 31, 1958.

6 So John M. Vorys of Ohio lost the draw to Robert B. Chiperfield of Illinois in 1939 when both were assigned as Republican freshmen to the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Twenty years later, when Vorys retired, though he had been for most of that period the Republican mainstay on the Committee, he was still only second ranking minority member—Chiperfield's district was as safe as his, and the seniority order once established was not disturbed.

7 Huitt, Ralph K., “The Morse Committee Assignment Controversy,” this Review, Vol. 51 (June, 1957), p. 313.

8 Young, Roland, The American Congress (New York, 1959), p. 71.

9 “It is a perfectly terrific headache for those who have the job of trying to make committee assignments.” White, Senator in U. S. Congress, Joint Committee on the Organization of Congress, The Organization of Congress, Hearings, 79th Cong., 1st sess. (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1945), p. 394 (hereafter, referred to as Hearings, The Organization of Congress).

10 In the Senate, for example, there may not be two senators of the same party from the same Btate on any committee, a practice that is convenient on other grounds, since it eliminates what otherwise might be a source of intrastate jurisdictional disputes between the two senators.

11 Farm state representatives dominate the agriculture committees, for example, and only lawyers are seated on the judiciary committees.

12 Much of this material is drawn from interviews in Washington on March 31 and April 1, 1958, with George Reedy, Senate Democratic Policy Committee; Lloyd Jones, Senate Republican Policy Committee; Mark Trice, Minority Secretary of the Senate; Leo Irwin, Clerk of the House Ways and Means Committee; and Congressman Donald Nicholson, member of the House Republican Committee on Committees.

13 Quoted by Krock, Arthur, New York Times, April 8, 1958, p. 28. A Washington saying, attributed to Rayburn is, “If you want to get along, go along,”.

13a Congressional Quarterly Weekly Report, July 1, 1958, p. 887 and New York Times, January 20, 1959.

14 The voluntary abdication, early in 1959, of Senator Theodore F. Green of Rhode Island, then well into his nineties, as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, in order to make room for J. William Fulbright of Arkansas in that post, was a startling exception widely hailed as a tribute to Johnson's persuasive powers. Thomas S. Gordon of the House Foreign Affairs Committee relinquished his chairmanship during the 85th Congress on account of ill health.

15 McConachie, Lauros G., Congressional Committees (New York: Crowell, 1898), p. 281.

16 Senator Morse in the debate on the nomination of Senator Eastland as chairman of the Judiciary Committee, U. S. Congress, Congressional Record, 84th Cong., 2d sess. (1956), p. 3815. “Cotton Ed” Smith, a Democrat, got Cummins' place, by a coalition vote.

17 Chiu, Chang Wei, The Speaker of the House of Representatives (New York: Columbia University Press, 1928), p. 71.

18 For previous moves to strip the Speaker of his powers see Alexander, D. S., History and Procedure of the House of Representatives (Boston, 1916), p. 76.

19 Norris, George W., Fighting Liberal (New York, 1945), pp. 114115.

20 Ibid., p. 132.

21 A letter quoted in Heller, Robert, Strengthening Congress (Washington: National Planning Association, 1945), p. 39.

22 The American Congress, p. 46.

23 Congressional Record, 84th Cong., 2d sess. (1956), p. 3822.

24 Luce, Robert, Congress: An Explanation (Cambridge, 1926), p. 9.

25 Udall, Stewart L., “A Defense of the Seniority System,” New York Times Magazine, January 13, 1957.

26 Young, Roland, This Is Congress (New York, 1943), p. 109.

26a Two new standing committees were created by the 86th Congress, bringing the total to 36. These are the Senate Committee on Astronautical and Space Sciences and the House Committee on Science and Astronautics.

27 Committee on Political Parties of the American Political Science Association, Toward a More Responsible Two-Party System (New York, 1950), p. 62.

28 Senator Neuberger suggests that this is one reason why ex-Presidents have little interest in running for Congress. Neuberger, Richard L., “A Senator's Case Against Seniority,” New York Times Magazine, April 7, 1957.

29 De Grazia, Alfred, The Elements of Political Science (New York, 1952), p. 331. This was phrased differently to the author by Senator Saltonstall, as follows, “The longer I stay in Washington, the more sympathetic I become with the system.”

30 Galloway, , The Legislative Process in Congress, p. 271.

31 If a chairman died less than half way through a particular Congress, his successor was counted as if he had been chairman throughout in the statistical presentation made here.

32 This perhaps more meaningful approach is to divide the 435 Congressional districts as nearly as possible into four quartiles. According to this breakdown, made for the 85th Congress only, the 109 most urban districts produced 21 per cent of the House chairmen, and 108 next most urban produced 5 per cent, the 110 next most urban 16 per cent, and the 108 least urban 58 per cent. See Congressional Quarterly, 1956, p. 790, for raw data.

33 Another way to look at party strength is to determine what percentage of the members of Congress come from safe districts (districts which gave them 60 per cent or more of the 2-party vote), fighting districts (districts which gave them between 55 and 59.9 per cent of their vote) and doubtful districts (those which gave them less than 55 per cent of their vote in the most recent election). Data for the 85th Congress show, as might be expected, that there are more safe House than Senate districts. Seventy-one per cent of House chairmen or ranking minority members have come from safe districts, while the comparable figure for the Senate is 44 per cent. More Democrats than Republicans have come from safe districts.

33a This quite obviously does not give the full measure of a chairman's relationship to his party's stand. He can do a great deal in his committee to keep things he does not like from coming to a vote on the floor.

34 A check for chairmen whose party unity score was 20 per cent or more below the chairmen's average turns up Republican Senators Aiken, Langer and Tobey in the 80th Congress, and Senator Langer in the 83d. “Maverick” Democrats in the Senate were: Johnson (Colo.), McCarran, McClellan in the 81st Congress; Johnson and McCarran in the 82d; Byrd and Eastland in the 84th; and Byrd in the 85th. In the House, Republican chairman Welch was more than 20 per cent below the chairmen's average in the 80th Congress. Democrats who fell in this category were Barden, Murray, Rankin and Wood for the 81st; Barden, Doughton, McMillan, Murray, Rankin, Stanley and Wood forthe 82d; Barden in the 84th and again in the 85th, when he was joined by Buckley.

35 During the 80th Congress there was a Democratic President and a Republican Congress; during the 81st and 82d both President and Congress were Democratic; during the 83d both President and Congress were Republican, and during the 84th and 85th there was a Republican President and a Democratic Congress.

35a It must be remembered that much of the information concerning House Chairmen applies to the entire states from which they come, and not to the specific congressional districts which may be atypical of the states.

36 Of a total of 16 people who spoke at the hearings on the seniority system, 14 were critical of its operation.

37 See testimony of Representative Gore at p. 389 in Hearings, The Organization of Congress; also Toward A More Responsible Two-Party System, p. 37.

38 See testimony of George Smith at p. 406 and of Representative Gore at p. 888, Hearings, The Organization of Congress.

39 See testimony of Senator Kefauver, ibid., p. 72. One staff member suggested that the committee members choose a member of the staff as chairman, without vote. George Smith at p. 406.

40 Congressional Record, 84th Congress, 2d sess. (1956), p. 3816.

41 Robert Heller suggests a joint party leadership committee such as George Norris proposed in 1910. Hearings, The Organization of Congress, p. 858.

42 See testimony of Ted Salvey at p. 881 and of Daniel Kornblum at p. 930, ibid. Woodrow Wilson in his Congressional Government (Boston, 1885), p. 99, suggested that minority party members be removed from committees altogether. This has been the regular practice of the Connecticut state legislature for its key committees; and historically the House Ways and Means Committee operated informally in this fashion, by closed sessions for majority members only, when it considered tariff legislation.

43 See testimony of Representative Herter, Hearings, The Organization of Congress p. 100.

44 See Riddick, F. M., The United States Congress: Organization and Procedure (Washington: National Capitol Publishers, 1949), pp. 236262. Bertram Gross is critical of the discharge procedure, saying that “a bill that is discharged cannot be perfected through the use of minor amendments and the perfecting process is thrown open to the floor of the house.” The Legislative Struggle (New York, 1953), p. 322.

45 Young gives such an example in This Is Congress, p. 115.

46 New York Times, January 8, 1957.

47 It is probable that one of these, Senator McNamara of Michigan, because of his strong interest in labor, feels satisfied with his membership on the Labor Committee.

48 These were Senators Beall, Case (New Jersey), Cooper, Curtis, Ives, Javits, Martin (Iowa), Morton, Revercomb.

49 Young, Roland comments in The American Congress, p. 72, “In the long run the problems raised by the seniority method of selecting chairmen may perhaps best be met by modifying the functions of the chairman, making him simply the presiding officer of a collegiate body and not an official having independent authority by virtue of his title.”

50 Senate Resolution 22, sponsored by Kuchel, Senators and Bush, , Congressional Record, 84th Cong., 1st sess. (1955), p. 355.

51 Armed Services, Banking and Currency, District of Columbia, Government Operations, Interstate Commerce, Judiciary, Post Office, Rules.

52 Agriculture, Armed Services, Banking and Currency, District of Columbia, Education and Labor, Foreign Affairs, Government Operations, Interior, Un-American Activities.

53 “A Defense of the Seniority System,” January 13, 1957.

54 It is interesting to note that some who are seeking to limit the effects of the seniority system by lessening the power of committee chairmen, are, paradoxically, most anxious to have subcommittee chairmen chosen on the basis of seniority, so as to lessen the rewards and punishments available to committee chairmen.

55 Interview with Representative Udall, April 1, 1958.

56 The Congressional Directory for the 85th Congress lists regular meetings on a monthly, bi-monthly or weekly basis for all but the Senate Appropriations Committee and the House Committees on Appropriations, Banking and Currency, Public Works, Rules, Veterans Affairs and Ways and Means. The Legislative Reorganization Act excludes Appropriations Committees from the requirement of setting a regular meeting date because of the seasonal nature of their work.

57 The Congressional Quarterly for 1957 lists subcommittees for all but the Senate Finance Committee and House Committees on Rules and Un-American Activities. Some do not seem to have clearly defined jurisdiction, but the subject matter of some of the committees does not lend itself to clear definition either.

58 In 1957, with the exception of the committees dealing with foreign affairs, finance and the military, of which a considerable number of executive sessions are to be expected, the following held closed sessions for 40 per cent or more of the time: Senate Committee on Agriculture (41 per cent), Rules (69 per cent); House Committee on House Administration (55 per cent), Judiciary (53 per cent), Public Works (58 per cent). Congressional Quarterly, 1957, p. 94.

59 An approach to this problem, suggested by Representative Herter, would be to allow one-third of the committee members, if they feel that a bill has merit, to put it on a calendar. Hearings, The Organization of Congress, p. 101.

60 In spite of the many criticisms of seniority voiced by those who testified before the LaFollette-Monroney Committee, no action was taken “because of lack of agreement within the Committee as to workable changes in existing practices.” Joint Committee on the Organization of Congress, The Organization of Congress, Senate Report 1011, 79th Cong., 2d. sess. (1946), p. 35.

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American Political Science Review
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