Institutional Advancement: Do Dan Boren’s Claims Add Up?

Politico published an insightful article yesterday provocatively titled “Members of Congress:  This Job Sucks.”  Much of the article centers on and interview with Oklahoma Representative Dan Boren (D).  Boren is retiring at the end of this session, so he’s using his unique position to speak candidly about what he sees as the the sad state of the House.  Most of his comments revolve around gridlock and the rank-and-file’s inability to advance meaningful legislation.  On this matter, I have no qualms with Boren’s commentary.  One claim, however, does’t quite add up in my view…

In the old days, [Boren] would have been a sure bet to bide his time in Congress, win reelection by serving up earmarks to his constituents and, after a couple of decades, grab the prized gavel of the Armed Services Committee….”You want to get things done for your constituents. If you can’t ever become speaker or a committee chairman, why are you doing it?”

The implication seems to be that career advancement in the House–in particular advancing from lowly rank-and-file to committee chairman–is particularly arduous in the modern Congress.  Historically speaking, this claim doesn’t work very well.  Specifically, the aptly named seniority system–which served as the overarching rationale for promoting committee chairs from 1911 until the early 1970s–severely limited members’ advancement opportunities.  Under this rather simple system, the committee member of the majority party with the longest service in committee became chairman.  Thus, members with long careers were able to wield significant influence over policy outcomes, often at the expense of their party’s policy goals (particularly southern Democrats, who were over-represented in terms of occupying committee chairs).  Reforms in the 1970s, however, altered the workings of the seniority system, allowing both parties to deviate from the seniority norm (making it easier for other members to advance).  Moreover, in the 104th Congress, House and Senate Republicans implemented a rule limiting committee chairmen to six-year terms.  So if anything, there is greater access to top committee positions in the modern Congress compared to the 1960s.*

But what about more recent trends?  Has institutional advancement–in the form of assuming a committee chair–declined in recent years?  I feel a figure coming on…

What we see in the first figure is the median (blue) and mean (red) two-year terms served by committee chairmen and ranking members per Congress (from 1979 to today).  (note: the data are for standing committees only).  For both series there is a modest, positive slope.  Over the entire series the amount of change is about .3 terms (or just over half a year). In the past two decades, however, there has been a slight decrease in the terms served by chairmen and ranking members.  The second chart tells a similar story.  Here we are looking at the median (green) and mean (purple) number of terms served in committee by chairman and ranking members.  If anything, the average chairman or ranking member is serving fewer terms in committee before advancing to the top spot.  So in short, we just don’t see consequential changes in committee advancement of the sort that Boren laments, at least not in the past 20 or so years.  If anything it has become easier to assume a committee chair or become ranking member (though the trend is probably negligible).  Granted, there are probably more sophisticated ways of examining this issue (for example, to what extent party loyalty plays a role in advancement and examining at what point in one’s congressional career is a member most likely to chair a standing committee).  Nonetheless these simple statistics reveal some important trends.

As an aside, Boren is in his 4th term in the House.  In the 112th Congress, the data reveal that the median number of terms served by chairmen and ranking members is 10.

* One important counterpoint is that the rule limiting committee chairmen to six-year terms was undone by Democrats at the start of the 111th Congress.  Republicans, if I recall, have their own rule limiting members to six-years, though exceptions have been made in the past.

note: the data on committees and their members is available on Charles Stewart’s Congressional Data Page.  Many thanks to him for making this useful data publicly available.