What Is The Seniority System?

How Power Is Amassed in Congress

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The term seniority system is used to described 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 seniormost members of Congress form amassing tremendous power.

The privileges range from allowing senior members their choice of offices to their picks of committee assignments.

In addition, members with a longer term of service on a committee are assumed to be "senior" and have more power in the committee. Seniority is usually, but not always, considered when each party awards committee chairmanships, the most powerful position on a committee.

The seniority system is favored because it is seen as a nonpartisan method for selecting committee chairmen as opposed to system that employs patronage, cronyism and political favoritism. "It is not that Congress loves seniority more," a former House member from Arizona, Stewart Udall, once said, "but the alternatives less."

Effects of the Seniority System

The seniority system enhanced the power of the committee chairs because they are not beholden to the interests of party leaders anymore. 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.

 In 1995, Senate Republicans voted to limit committee chairmanships to a six years. Committees are where most of the important legislative work actually happens, not on the floor of the House and Senate.

Some of the most powerful leadership positions - speaker of the House and and majority leader - are elected positions and somewhat immune to the seniority system.

The second kind of seniority transcends committee assignments and refers instead to a member's social standing. The longer a member has served in office, the better his office location and social standing will be in Washington, D.C. There are no term limits for members of Congress.

History of the Seniority System

The seniority system in Congress dates to 1911 and a revolt against House Speaker Joseph Cannon, Robert E. Dewhirst and John David Rausch write in the Encyclopedia of the United States Congress. The seniority system allowed members of the House to advance and win committee assignments even if the leadership of their party - figures such as Cannon, who wielded formidable amounts of power - opposes them.

Criticism of the Seniority System

Opponents of the seniority system in Congress say it gives advantage of lawmakers from safe districts "and provides no guarantee that the most qualified person will be chair," Dewhirst and Rausch write. 

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Gill, Kathy. "What Is The Seniority System?" ThoughtCo, Dec. 26, 2016, thoughtco.com/what-is-the-seniority-system-3368073. Gill, Kathy. (2016, December 26). What Is The Seniority System? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-the-seniority-system-3368073 Gill, Kathy. "What Is The Seniority System?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-the-seniority-system-3368073 (accessed January 20, 2018).