Congress is a lot like the NFL. Many aspire to it, few make it, and of the few who do, even fewer ever get a taste of the stardom that drove them to seek the job in the first place. However, in Congress, positions are rarely assigned based on talent. In fact, until recently, seniority was practically the only meaningful measure upon which to judge members. The tradition persists to a certain degree, especially among House Democrats. For this reason, a six term incumbent like Tammy Baldwin may still be far, far away from a coveted chairmanship of a standing committee.
When I talked to the congresswoman the other day, she shared with me some of the politics behind Congressional committees. Baldwin serves on the Energy and Commerce Committee, which is one of the most powerful panels on the Hill. Its former chair, John Dingell Jr. -- the longest serving House member in history -- used to have a photo of Earth to point to when people asked him what the jurisdiction of his committee's was. In addition, Baldwin sits on Judiciary, which is significant because technically, "Energy" is supposed to be an exclusive committee, meaning membership on it restricts membership on others. Baldwin received a waiver from the Speaker which allowed her to have a second committee appointment. However, she does not accumulate seniority on Judiciary, as she does on Energy.
As Baldwin pointed out, the Energy Committee displays that seniority means a lot but it doesn't mean everything. Two years ago, the House Democratic Caucus voted to replace Dingell, who has been a stalwart protector of the car manufacturers in his Detroit district, with Henry Waxman, a California liberal whose environmental positions are more in line with the party leadership.
Keep in mind, however, Waxman is no nOOb. He was first elected in 1975.
In fact, freshman Democrats are not allowed to serve on the Energy Committee at all.
Requirements for geographic diversity on committees made Baldwin's wait to be on Energy even longer, since four members of the Upper Midwest region were already on the panel. Hence, Baldwin did not get a seat on her first choice committee until 2005.
On the full committee, excluding two retiring representatives, there are 15 members who have served longer on the committee longer than Baldwin. From the numbers, it looks like no more than two of them will lose this year, and most likely none of them will lose.
Even the subcommittees present stiff competition for gavels in the future. On the health panel, which offers jurisdiction over the issue Baldwin is most passionate about, there are seven Democrats, excluding the chairman, with more seniority than her.
As mentioned before, in recent years, seniority has occasionally taken a backseat to other factors in determining committee appointments. Party loyalty, alliances, fundraising capability, and even competence are beginning to shift focus away from the tenure system that was once so strictly interpreted that bizarre tie-breakers -- such as the date of admission of a member's state into the Union -- were the only way to determine which of two members with the same seniority got the chairmanship.
Nevertheless, according to Baldwin, there has not been a perceptible change in the place of seniority in the House since her election in 1998. What does change, she says, is the power of the Speaker in relation to the chairs of committees. In the past there have been speakers with little influence over the agendas of committee heads, whereas today, Nancy Pelosi casts a wide shadow over all other party leaders.