Today’s Courier Herald Column:
In legislative politics, there are few things more important than seniority. In Washington D.C. seniority is currency, for both a member that knows how to use it and generally for the constituents back home as well.
There was a time when Georgians played the seniority game in Washington very well. Names like Nunn, Talmadge, and Russell resonate for a reason. Sam Nunn and Herman Talmadge both served Georgia for 24 years. Each had 4 terms to allow themselves to rise in Senate rank and achieve the benefits of being able to control certain activities and how they would and wouldn’t affect Georgia. Nunn is widely credited with Georgia being able to avoid much pain during early Base Realignment and Closure activities because of his position on the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Richard Russell, meanwhile, was elected seven times to the US Senate from Georgia, and was the body’s longest serving member at the time of his death. He had the kind of institutional control via his tenure that is marked by the oldest Senate office building bearing his name.
As Georgia began to move from a Democratically controlled state to a Republican one, seniority seems to have been lost as a goal in DC. Quite the contrary, many on the Republican side seem to want term limits, even if they are unilaterally self-imposed here at home while other states play the seniority game and have their members flex the institutional muscle it provides as benefit for their constituents back home.
Most Senators generally begin to hit their stride somewhere in their second term, and have enough seniority by the end of the second or beginning of their third to command a chairmanship of a key committee. Georgia lost one recent opportunity at Senate seniority with Senator Paul Coverdell’s death early in his second term. With Senator Saxby Chambliss’ retirement announcement, there is yet another career that will end just as the benefits of tenure are codified.
Looking at those who are making overt moves to begin a campaign to replace Chambliss, there are some who will likely have a better chance at building seniority than others. And there is one who will have to trade what is perhaps the most clout currently held by a Georgian in Congress for an opportunity to get at the back of the line for Seniority in the Senate.
Congressman Phil Gingrey entered Congress ten years ago and is one of the ones said to be taking a strong look at the contest. In trading his six terms of House Seniority, Gingrey would enter the U.S. Senate at the age of 72. Presuming a successful run for re-election, Gingrey would be in his early eighties by the time he matches the current seniority of Senators Isakson and Chambliss. He would need to go full Strom Thurmond to reach a tenure like that of Senators Nunn or Talmadge.
The only semi-announced candidate, Paul Broun, yields only four years to Gingrey. Any attempt at four terms of longevity would put him, too, serving into his nineties.
In January 2015, Lynn Westmoreland will be 64, Tom Price will be 60, and Jack Kingston will be 59. The relative youngsters of the group – Karen Handel, Lt. Governor Casey Cagle and Congressman Tom Graves, would be 52, 49 and 45 respectively. Graves would also be giving up the least amount of federal tenure of the above bunch while Cagle and Handel would cost no federal seniority in the House of Representatives.
The flip side of that coin is the cost of a run by Congressman Jack Kingston. The Dean of Georgia’s delegation, Kingston has served Georgia’s first district since 1993. More importantly, that time served has placed him as a subcommittee chairman over appropriations for all Health and Human Services spending. He is in a legitimate seat of power in the house, and has far more seniority than all of the remaining Georgia members in the majority caucus.
There will be many factors weighed over the next two years as the race for Senate develops. As those who are considering entering the race look at their options and that of Georgia, current seniority and the ability to attain future seniority in a meaningful way should not be overlooked as one of those when winnowing down the broad list of hopefuls to a short list of actual contenders.