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Outliers and typicals, in Congress

T’other day, Atrios linked to the Wikipedia list of current Senators by seniority, and I was surprised by the list. Before I link to it myself, so you are guessing and not skipping ahead to find the link and check, how many current Senators would you guess have been serving for two full terms? How many for three? How many for more than three?

OK, here’s the list. Two terms would be the ones elected in 1996 and taking office in 1997, eight of them, to add to the 39 with greater seniority making 47 with at least two full terms. Less than half. Three terms would be the class of 1990, right? None of them are left, but Sen. Akaka was appointed just before that election (and re-elected in that election), and he is twenty-sixth in seniority. Just over a quarter.

That surprised me. Half the Senate is in their first or second term and another quarter in their third; it’s more complicated than that due to partial terms and all, but still. Looking at the remaining quarter, many of them were elected in the eighties, people like Harry Reid and John McCain (in their fourth terms) and Tom Harkin and Chris Dodd (in his fifth term). Carl Levin, Thad Cochran and Max Baucus just started their sixth terms, joining Dick Lugar and Pat Leahy. And Daniel Inouye is in his eighth term, Ted Kennedy is in his ninth (with the first a partial), and Robert Byrd is in his ninth full term.

What I’m seeing is that most Senators serve one, two or three terms, and that there are a few more who serve a bit longer, and then there are a small number who sit for more than thirty years , and a very small number who sit for fucking ever. Because of the seniority rules and norms of the Senate, the quarter who are around for longer than the others accumulate more power and prominence, so I hear a lot more about those guys, and then my image of "a Senator" becomes somebody who has been there for thirty years. That’s not the typical Senator, although it’s the typical committee chair.

That made me think about term limits in a different way. I’m still against them as basically anti-democratic, but if the point of limiting service to, say, three terms is not to limit the power of incumbency to win election but to limit the power of those outliers like Dick Lugar and Carl Levin, it makes more sense. Sure, those Senators’ constituents are happy with them, but it looks, on the face of it, as if it’s likely to be detrimental to the Senate as a whole to have those atypical Senators gather all the power in their hands. Of course, a much better solution would be to modify the seniority rules. But since the rules are largely in the hands of those outliers, it could certainly be awkward.

In the House, the situation looks much the same, except perhaps more so. Half have been in for less than ten years; three-quarters less than eighteen years. An eighth for twenty years or so, and only 25 got to the House in 1980 or before. Those 25 outliers, though, include 10 of the 21 committee chairs. The seniority system isn’t as powerful in the House, but still, it’s not only that a group of six percent of the house has half the chairs—after all, only 21 people can be committee chairs, so that will be five percent anyway—it’s that the group of six percent are obvious outliers.

And one of the effects is that group of outliers comes to seem less like outliers and more like the typical case.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


Interesting! Not at all what I would have guess, either.

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