Chambliss Retirement A Setback for Georgia’s Congressional Seniority

February 4, 2013 13:00 pm

by Charlie · 17 comments

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.

seenbetrdayz February 4, 2013 at 2:54 pm

I’ve never really understood the concept of seniority and how we could boast a system of equal representation and yet at the same time we see some Senators have far more clout than others just for having been there longer.

I know people will say, ‘well, that’s the way it works.’ And at the same time, I see how it is tremendously unfair and perhaps even detrimental, as the goal is to simply keep the politicians there as long as possible and try to increase their ‘rank’, which, more often than not, leads to bad consequences.

novicegirl February 4, 2013 at 3:12 pm

It’s all messed up, there is nothing fair about the US Senate. Think about it, the concept of Federalism is long gone (I agree with Zell Miller and think the demise began with the 17th Amendment), but yet we still give states like Vermont two Senators – although it’s smaller than Fulton County.

slyram February 4, 2013 at 3:18 pm

Charlie, you make my point about Austin Scott being the natural choice. Okay, as a south Georgia person, I will admit that I want that seat to stay south of the gnat line..i.e. Scott or Kingston. Then again, seniority isn’t what it once was because freshmen come out with guns blazing these days.
If someone from the far right is the GOP nom, the door is slightly open for a few moderate to conservative democrats but they haven’t cultivated the next crop well.

Three Jack February 4, 2013 at 3:42 pm

I have to disagree with your basic premise here Charlie, at least as it applies in today’s senate. Without question committee assignments are handed out largely based on seniority. But with nationally known freshmen senators like Marco Rubio, Rand Paul and Ted Cruz establishing themselves within a couple of years as significant voices, the tide is turning against auto-geezer appointments.

Georgia voters have a unique opportunity to elect somebody who can join with the current GOP first termers in an effort to change the discussion in DC. Rubio is out front as a leader in the immigration reform movement while Paul and Cruz have both spoken about other critical issues. Of the potential candidates mentioned so far, the only one I see who has exhibited similar non-conformist traits would be Karen Handel. If elected, I would bet Karen becomes more like the Rubio/Paul/Cruz contingent than a silent wallflower patiently awaiting her turn at the power trough. Either way, it should not take 2 terms for the next GA senator to find his/her legislative legs.

tdk790 February 4, 2013 at 4:16 pm

Interesting points. While many in the current scene would like to wish it away, Handel does bring something different to the table in the same vein of Rubio and Cruz. And neither one of them were the establishment choice “destined” to win.

David C February 4, 2013 at 7:13 pm

Well, I’d say you’re a bit right and a bit wrong. When it comes to Seniority, this isn’t the 1940s, pre-LBJ Senate anymore. Way back in the day, when Committee Chairs were everything Seniority was really the only way to exercise influence. Now, younger Senators can find their way to influence quicker either through building a media constituency, through the party campaign committees, or through the leadership. Frist was Senate Leader just 2 years into his second term in office. So was Trent Lott. Baker was Republican Leader in his 2nd term as well. Schumer ended up #3 in the Senate 2 years after being elected to his second term. Certainly Schumer and other younger Senators on the left and Cornyn and other senators on the right have used heading the DSCC and NRSC to increase their profile, and bring in like minded allies and that’s the kind of post often open to a freshman or early 2nd term Senator with a good fundraising base. A successful cycle leading the campaign team can really be a boost to a Senator’s influence and power. And, if you’re a good fundraiser, well liked by your party, you can be a pretty influential Senator relatively quick in Senate terms. (Though 8 years does not make an overnight sensation).

Now, you can also be Rubio/Paul/Cruz and become more of a media figure. But the big reason that Rubio and Paul get media presence is the widespread assumption each of them are running for President. But outside of Rubio’s role in immigration legislation that may or may not pan out, they aren’t really taking the lead in legislative terms. That may be in part because being too active in legislation or casting too many votes can be poison for a Presidential candidate. (Ask Kerry, McCain, and Dole about that. Even in primaries, Romney hit Santorum hard on certain Senate votes.) But the bloc or path they’re taking isn’t a legislative one so much as a political one. They aren’t looking to write bills or solve problems but to make media attention and nurture interest groups within the party ahead of 2016.

But that’s a different kind of power, and the question is what do you want in a Senator. Legislating, like any other profession is a skill that requires practice to get better. The line on Ted Kennedy, and it was true, was that once he lost in 1980 he became a much better Senator. If Georgia wants someone to become a really good Senator, he or she needs to be someone whose ultimate goal is to be a Senator, and will work at increasing their power and influence within the Senate. Seniority remains a tool for that, but so does wanting the job. Paul/Cruz/Rubio don’t strike me as wanting to be a good Senator so much as a good nominee. Georgia isn’t picking someone to be President, so they ought to pick someone able to stick it out and be a good Senator.

SOWEGA February 4, 2013 at 3:54 pm

If both the House and Senate moved legislation in regular order, then seniority – especially from a committee standpoint – would actually mean something. These days, all of the power resides within a few folks in the House and Senate leadership. Committee chairmen, who in the past wielded enormous amounts of influence on legislation, are now at the whim of leadership to call up their bill to the floor. Hence the numerous Continuing Resolution and Omnibus packages that are now the norm. With the phasing out of earmarks (i.e. Congressional directed spending), this practice has become even more acute. Senior legislators have no incentive to push or promote legislation friendly to their districts and – as a result – they have ceeded power to Pelosi, Boehner, McConnell, and Reid. So, in effect, seniority means very little. At least until we get back to regular order.

xdog February 4, 2013 at 4:06 pm

Everyone forgets Walter F. George. Not everyone, but you understand what I mean. George served from 1923-57, opposed the New Deal, ran the Foreign Relations and Finance Committees for a while, and was regarded as the finest public speaker in the Senate back when standing up and engaging your fellows directly was an asset both in politics and the law. Today his name honors a lake and a law school.

David C February 4, 2013 at 7:23 pm

Even though it was just the Senate, we can’t forget Carl Vinson, Sam Nunn’s granduncle, either. Served 1914-1965, 3rd longest serving Congressman all time behind Dingell and some guy from Mississippi. Chaired Naval Affairs Committee 1931-46, then Armed Services all but 4 years from 1947-65. Passed legislation to start building the two ocean navy ahead of WWII. He and Russell are part of the reason Georgia had so many military bases for Nunn to protect.

And George wasn’t totally opposed to FDR and the New Deal. When programs were good for Georgia, like the TVA, Social Security, Rural Electrification and the Agricultural Adjustment Act, he supported them. And he backed FDR on preparedness, Lend-Lease, and the founding of the UN.

Joshua Morris February 4, 2013 at 4:23 pm

No big deal. The seniority of my senators is not my top priority.

gcp February 4, 2013 at 4:49 pm

Did Sam Nunn’s “seniority” keep Fort Mac in Atlanta open until 2005? It should have been closed in the seventies. Unfortunately “seniority” often equates with how much a politician can get for his district which is one of the reasons we have such a huge deficit. I have much more respect for a politician such as Tom Coburn that will leave office after a couple terms rather than someone that spends most of his life in political office.

seenbetrdayz February 4, 2013 at 5:40 pm

Unfortunately “seniority” often equates with how much a politician can get for his district which is one of the reasons we have such a huge deficit.

You got it. As much as it pains me to say it, we might learn a thing or two about seniority if Georgia isn’t the top dog anymore. We’ll see how quickly our view on seniority being such a fantastic thing changes when the shoe is on someone else’s (or some other state’s) foot.

As for base closures, I think it’s absolutely rediculous to close bases here at home while we spend billions of dollars trying to subsidize foreign contractors on bases overseas. But, that’s a separate debate on foreign policy that no one seems to want to have here. So, we’ll see bases shut down here at home which are a boost to the economy, while some Germans enjoy the benefits of our servicemen and women buying stuff overseas with their paychecks.

gcp February 4, 2013 at 7:18 pm

Agree on the need for overseas base closures. As for Senators Talmadge and Russell; Talmadge was one of the fathers of the Food Stamp Program which currently costs us 80 billion per year and Russell was a lifelong racist. So much for the benefits of “seniority.”

xdog February 4, 2013 at 7:24 pm

“Talmadge was one of the fathers of the Food Stamp Program which currently costs us 80 billion per year and Russell was a lifelong racist. So much for the benefits of “seniority.” ”

It took most of the day but I believe you’ve won the non sequitur award for 04Feb.

gcp February 4, 2013 at 7:41 pm

Always remember; seniority is good and should be admired

Scott65 February 4, 2013 at 10:36 pm

I dont think seniority is as important since earmarks were banned (wrongly in my opinion). That was how you kept junior members in check and senior members brought home the bacon…and we see how well thats all working post earmarks

Doug Deal February 4, 2013 at 11:26 pm

The seniority system is one of the things I hate about Washington. We would be better off alocating leadership by something other than how extremely partisan, and thus how electorally safe a state or district is.

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