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The value of seniority in today’s House of Representatives

During the “Textbook Congress” era from roughly the late-1940s to the early-1970s, seniority was tremendously valuable to members of Congress, particularly in the House.  Since World War II, data demonstrate lawmakers with many years of service have successfully pushed larger proportions of their bills further through the legislative process.  According to Craig Volden and Alan Wiseman’s “legislative effectiveness” scores, the difference in members’ capacity to do this increases as much over about seven terms of service—or from being a freshman to a member at roughly the 75th percentile—as it does when going from the minority to majority party.  This is not a trivial amount.  I have calculated every term served is worth about a four-point increase in the percentage of a member’s introduced bills securing original passage.

Until the reforms of the 1970s, congressional scholars attributed this success to senior legislators’ leadership of the committee system and the concomitant agenda-setting powers and widespread deference paid to them by the general membership.  Today, the seniority system that dominated the twentieth-century Congress is in tatters and party leaders  control appointment to positions of authority, including on standing committees.  Seniority continues to furnish its holders with benefits like legislative effectiveness and the capacity to persuade the House to endorse their policy preferences, however.  The causal mechanism must now be different.  Without reliable access to agenda powers and a pervasive culture of respect for seniority, long-serving members must actively build coalitions for their legislative proposals.  Time served is presumably a resource valuable in this effort.

But how is it valuable?  Length of service might be a proxy for information that members commoditize and exchange with colleagues, yet junior lawmakers have more sources of information than ever today.  A legion of think tanks, academia, advocacy groups, and the media supply and disseminate sophisticated knowledge more easily than ever in our Internet age.  Strong parties and ideological polarization constrain legislators more than ever, attenuating the utility of data derived from independent sources.

Information is also notoriously difficult to commoditize.  It is not like money or a tangible good.  Once I give it to you, it loses its value to me because I cannot control what you do with it.  You might turnaround and Tweet it to the world.  Scholars believe seniority correlates with policy and procedural expertise.  It probably does.  But that does not make it particularly useful to its holders in their efforts to further personal policy interests.

In a recent paper, I demonstrate seniority continues to be of value to long-serving members because it permits them to build relationships with colleagues in the House, and exerts a kind of bonding effect.  The longer a member has served the more numerous and meaningful her connection to colleagues.  These relationships bring support for her legislative proposals.  It is difficult to observe the nature of these relationships in any systematic way.  All sorts of behavior nurture and create them—including episodic activity such as the trading of information, votes, and other favors or more informal and continuous reciprocation facilitated through communication at the member or staff level.  Regardless, fruitful dyadic relationships proliferate with time.

Roll call data from the current strong-party era that began in the 1980s show that the proportion of votes a member’s bills and amendments receive is strongly and positively related to the amount of time she has served in the House.  These patterns show quite clearly seniority is not commoditized or strategically deployed—senior legislators’ proposals do not tend to win narrowly or suffer sizeable defeats, for example.  Co-sponsorship data reveal junior members do not disproportionately jump on senior members’ measures.  The terms served by a bill’s sponsor and the average number of terms served by its co-sponsors are positively related.

Congressional reformers seem to realize the bonding qualities of seniority in the current era.  They designed the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act—passed a dozen years ago—to counteract the pressure former members and staff exert on the legislative process through lobbying.  Under the law, congressional staffers may lobby anyone except individuals in their old office or committee upon leaving the Hill.  Former members can go immediately to work advising clients on policy and legislative strategy.  The reformers did not seem to believe information about policy or procedures gave members and staff unhealthy influence after they departed the institution.  They wanted to attenuate the leverage produced by the many strong personal relationships built over a lengthy stay in Congress.

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Topics: Representation & Leadership
Andrew Taylor
Andrew J. Taylor is professor of Political Science in the School of Public and International Affairs at NC State University, where he has taught since...