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Eighteen is still three sixes

So. Every now and then Your Humble Blogger looks at seniority in the Senate and asks: how many current Senators would you guess have been serving for two full terms? How many for three? How many for more than three? As (a) we have a shiny new Senate today, and (2) my old APDA buddy is making term-limit noises to what I'm sure will be great acclaim, it seems like a good time to take a peek.

Now. Here's the list.

To answer my question, not about your guesses, which if you have been here a while may be fairly accurate, but about the actual Senate. Those who have served two full terms would have taken office in January 2005, right? There were three Senators who started in 2005 and were sworn in to a third term yesterday. Counting them, there are 30 who have served at least 12 years, meaning that there are 70 who have been serving less than two full terms. This has changed a lot from the first time I looked, eight years ago, when it was 47/53. Four years ago it was 33/67. That's three points and enough to call it a trend—well, I'm joking, but in truth the Senate is now numerically dominated by legislators in their first or second terms.

Going back six years further, there are two Senators who were just sworn in to their fourth term, having started in 1999. Counting them, there are 19 Senators who have served at least three full terms and are still serving, down from 26 in 2009. That's a substantial decrease, but perhaps it doesn't seem like that much of a change, only a handful of people. When you are talking about term limits, though, those 19 are the ones that you are denying their constituents the chance to re-elect. And it's true that the longest-serving Senators have more power than the fresher ones, not only because of the rules of seniority but because after twenty years they are likely to know what the hell they are doing.

And it's the real outliers who are presumably the real issue, the ones who are in their fifth or sixth terms. So let's take a quick look at the top ten:

  1. Pat Leahy: He's the last of the 1974 (post-Watergate) class in the Senate. He was sworn in for his eighth term yesterday. I had been wondering who might be the next real Outlier, and, yeah, it's him.
  2. Orrin Hatch is our other forty-year senator. He's in his seventh term, and I don't think has announced whether he will be running for re-election in 2018. He is chair of the Finance Committee, and is very powerful and influential.
  3. Thad Cochran is also in his seventh term, chair of Appropriations. No idea if he's going to run for re-election in 2020.
  4. Chuck Grassley is chair of Judiciary. He's just started his seventh term.
  5. Mitch McConnell is Majority Leader and the most powerful Senator there is. He is in his sixth term, and I think is likely to retire at the end of it rather than running in 2020. If he makes it that far.
  6. Richard Shelby is chair of Banking. He won his first two terms as a Democrat in 1986 and 1992, then switched in 1994 (I remember this bitterly) and has won four more as a Republican. Starting his sixth term. Could he run for a seventh in 2022 at the age of 88? It's possible.
  7. John McCain is chair of Armed Services, and is starting his sixth term. Yeah.
  8. Dianne Feinstein is the second D on this list (after Leahy) and is ranking member on Judiciary and vice-chair of the select Intelligence committee. She won the special election in 1992, and is in her fourth full term. I kinda doubt she will run for reelection in 2018, but some of y'all are on the ground out there.
  9. Patty Murray was sworn in for her fifth term yesterday. Oh, Patty Murray. I had such high hopes. Not that there's anything particularly wrong with her, but she hasn't been a Senatorial Star.
  10. Jim Inhofe is chair of Environment (shudder) and does not appear to be going into the Cabinet. He won a special election and is in his fourth full term following (22 years altogether).

The next one down is the guy who was elected when Bob Packwood had to resign in 1996, and then tied for twelfth place are the six Senators who are (probably) finishing their fourth terms in 2018, and then the two who just started their fourth terms, and that makes up the 19 I was talking about earlier.

So… looking at the outliers, it's true that Senators McConnell, Hatch, Cochran, McCain, Grassley, Shelby and Inhofe, between the seven of them, wield a truly remarkable amount of power. They do so with the support of their states, of course. A limit on the terms a Senator could serve would come at the substantial cost of not letting the voters pick their preferred legislators, with the proposed benefit of spreading some of that power around a little more widely. My gut feeling is that it isn't worth it, but (oddly enough) I also feel, just as a matter of instinct, that the fewer long-serving Senators there are, the more useful a limitation on terms would be to prevent the concentration of power in the hands of the few outliers. On the other other hand, given what we have actually experienced in legislating these last years, I don't know that the wiliness of veteran senators has actually achieved much.

Quickly, the House: only 191 Representatives (44%) have served more than six years. Go back 12 years and it's 137; go back 18 and it's around 85 (20%). This is roughly the same percentage as have served that long in the Senate, tho' of course the 2-year terms make the whole thing different. As for the very longest-serving, there are 15 that have passed the 30-year mark, including the Chairs of Appropriations, Science Space and Technology, and Energy and Commerce—not the most significant of the committees.

My conclusion, from this time around, is that (a) it is even more the case than it used to be that the three-decade or more legislator is an outlier, rather than the usual, which is more like a single decade; (2) that in the Senate, that still means a concentration of power in those outliers, which may be a Bad Thing, and (iii) Daaaaaaang, John Conyers.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


I support term limits for Ted Cruz . . .

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