The term "seniority system" is used to describe the practice of granting special perks and privileges to members of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives who have served the longest. The seniority system has been the target of numerous reform initiatives over the years, all of which have failed to prevent the most senior members of Congress from amassing tremendous power.
Senior Member Privileges
Members with seniority are allowed to choose their own offices and committee assignments. The latter is one of the most important privileges a member of Congress can earn because committees are where most of the important legislative work actually happens, not on the floor of the House and Senate.
Members with a longer term of service on a committee are also assumed to be senior, and therefore they have more power within the committee. Seniority is also usually, but not always, considered when each party awards committee chairmanships, the most powerful position on a committee.
History of the Seniority System
The seniority system in Congress dates back to 1911 and a revolt against House Speaker Joseph Cannon, writes Robert E. Dewhirst in his "Encyclopedia of the United States Congress." A seniority system of sorts was already in place, but Cannon nonetheless wielded tremendous power, controlling nearly every aspect governing which bills would be introduced in the House.
Leading a reform coalition of 42 fellow Republicans, Nebraska representative George Norris introduced a resolution that would remove the Speaker from the Rules Committee, effectively stripping him of all power. Once adopted, the seniority system allowed members of the House to advance and win committee assignments even if the leadership of their party opposed them.
Effects of the Seniority System
Congress members favor the seniority system because it is seen as a nonpartisan method for selecting committee chairmen, as opposed to a system that employs patronage, cronyism, and favoritism. “It is not that Congress loves seniority more,” a former House member from Arizona, Stewart Udall, once said, “but the alternatives less.”
The seniority system enhances the power of the committee chairs (limited to six years since 1995) because they are no longer beholden to the interests of party leaders. Because of the nature of the terms of office, seniority is more important in the Senate (where the terms are for six years), than in the House of Representatives (where the terms are for only two years).
Some of the most powerful leadership positions-speaker of the House and majority leader-are elected positions and therefore somewhat immune to the seniority system.
Seniority also refers to a legislator's social standing in Washington, D.C. The longer a member has served, the better his office location and the more likely he or she will be invited to important parties and other get-togethers. Since there are no term limits for members of Congress, this means members with seniority can, and do, amass great amounts of power and influence.
Criticism of the Seniority System
Opponents of the seniority system in Congress say it gives advantage to lawmakers from so-called “safe” districts (in which voters overwhelmingly support one political party or the other) and doesn't necessarily guarantee that the most qualified person will be chair. All it would take to end the seniority system in the Senate, for instance, is a simple majority vote to amend its Rules. Then again, the chances of any member of Congress voting to decrease his or her own is zero to none.
Dewhirst, Robert E. "Encyclopedia of the United States Congress." Facts on File Library of American History, Facts on File, October 1, 2006.