Seniority’s value not what it once was, GOP freshmen argue

Seniority used to directly translate into clout in Congress, but some of the 87 House Republican freshmen elected last year say that dynamic has changed.

“When you’re counting numbers, there is strength in numbers and the freshman class has been a fairly cohesive group and that has given us measurable impact in a very short period of time,” said freshman Rep. Tim Scott (R-S.C.). “I think at the end of the day, it’s what you do that matters more than your seniority.”

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In today’s era, where “earmark” is a dirty word and nearly one-quarter of the House are freshmen, seniority and the ability to bring home pork don’t seem to matter as much.

“I think we are in a new Congress where it is difficult to measure clout,” said Burdett Loomis, professor of political science at the University of Kansas. “Clout may have a different meaning these days than it did in the 1960s or 1970s where most of the stereotypes about Congress were created and almost always meant getting something new or getting something more for your district.”

Although some recent voting surveys show freshmen voting with GOP leaders nearly all of the time, those leaders have had to shift their position to conform to the new members.

The first major incident came early when freshmen conservatives objected to the first proposal by GOP leaders to fulfill their promise to cut federal spending by $100 billion because it didn’t cut enough actual spending.

Many also objected to the “grand bargain” that Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and President Obama were negotiating on a debt deal, helping to scuttle that effort.

And then this week freshmen joined more senior conservatives to defeat a continuing resolution. It passed only after $100 million in additional cuts were made.

Several states have more freshmen than ever before, but nowhere has the impact been more noticeable than in Kansas, where three of four House members are freshmen, and South Carolina, where four of its six-member delegation are.

South Carolina Reps. Jeff Duncan (R) and Mike Mulvaney (R) and Kansas Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R) were among the 10 freshmen who voted even against the altered CR late Thursday night.

Mulvaney (R-S.C.) said it’s not necessarily that all GOP freshmen vote together, but their bold conservative values and the wave election have given other members of Congress more confidence to speak out.

“I think what you’ve seen is that a core group of freshmen have sort of encouraged some of the folks who have been here a while to perhaps be a little bit more vocal and a little bit more assertive,” Mulvaney said.

Thirty of the 87 GOP freshmen voted against Boehner’s debt deal in August, including all South Carolina Republicans.

“I think for us it was truly about what was in the best interest of our constituents back home and the nation as a whole,” Scott said. “I want the Speaker to be successful, I want the country to be successful and I did my best to achieve both of those end results, but most importantly I want to make sure that what I believe will help us be successful as a nation is how I should vote.”

Loomis said most freshmen don’t feel able to challenge their party leadership and they tend to cast party-line votes.

“I think that this kind of a Congress doesn’t give most freshmen the chance to move out on given issues very easily,” Loomis said. “You’ve got these big debt issues, big budget issues that are so substantial facing the Congress that it’s hard to carve out a niche. Occasionally you’ve seen really talented people like [Reps.] Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) or Eric Cantor (R-Va.) come in and do that, but it’s extraordinarily difficult.”

Turnover of the magnitude of Kansas and South Carolina previously would have been considered a problem. South Carolina helped make seniority a virtue with members like Sen. Strom Thurmond, a Democrat-turned-Republican who served more than 47 years, and former House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mendel Rivers, who served 29. 

But with so many new faces in Congress this year, the change has gone practically unnoticed.

“The good news for Kansas is that there are a lot of new people … one-third of the Republican Conference are all freshmen,” said freshman Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.). “I think that has worked to Kansas’s relative benefit, that is, I think the absence of seniority is less impactful because there is such a new wave that moved through the House of Representatives in November of 2010.”

Loomis said Kansas’ best shots at having freshman members who make an impact for the state are Pompeo and Rep. Kevin Yoder (R), who serves on the Appropriations Committee.

Pompeo’s niche so far has been energy, but he hasn’t let that get in the way of his goal to limit government spending.

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“We have a significant ethanol industry in our district,” Pompeo said. “As someone who came out of the energy world, I hope that ethanol is successful but I don’t believe it is the role of the federal government to provide supports for it and, frankly, I don’t think it’s a very efficient use of taxpayer dollars either and so I have voted consistently to oppose the ethanol tax credit.”

Loomis said the kind of credit politicians can claim has changed. In the ‘60s and ‘70s politicians were judged by what projects they brought back to their districts, but with shrinking budgets and earmarks banned success will be different.

“In an era of cutback I think it’s going to be hard to measure impact,” Loomis said. “In the ‘70s [politicians] claimed credit for new programs and now I think there is going to be a lot of credit claiming for overall cut backs … ‘even though we had big cut backs we saved x or y or z for the state and we took a hit but it could have been a lot worse.’ I think that legislators have to be very astute in balancing the national issues with their constituency issues ...”

Pompeo and Scott said the change is for the better.

“America was in a really bad place, where elected officials were judged on how much they could bring home for their own district and we see where that got us — $14 trillion in debt,” Pompeo said. “So I’m very hopeful that what folks will measure me against is did I do the things I said I would do when I was campaigning.”

Like many of his fellow freshmen, Pompeo promised to limit government regulations, never raise taxes and cut government spending, even if it means projects for his state.

Scott made the same promises.

“Bringing home the pork was a way of creating a perch for some elected officials at the expense of other American citizens and that was just a bad trade off for the country and for politics as a whole. It created a murky environment,” Scott said. “The current environment works better for the constituents where we’re moving towards a competitive-based, a merit-based system and as long as we head in that same direction, I think we’re in good shape.”

Veteran Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.) disagrees with Scott.

“I’ll just say this; one person’s pork is another person’s beef,” Clyburn said.

Clyburn is dean of the South Carolina delegation, but since he is the sole Democrat representing the state, they no longer hold delegation meetings. Clyburn said the last South Carolina delegation meeting he could remember was presided over by Thurmond, and he retired in 2002.

“I’ve never gone to a community meeting where people did not express some community need that they wanted me to work on so the question is how do you work on it,” Clyburn said. “I think that this notion that nobody wants you to deliver on behalf of their communities — if that’s what they believe, they won’t be here long.”

If voters agree with Clyburn, the wave that brought the GOP freshmen to Washington in 2010 could recede and wash them back out to sea in 2012.