Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Capitol Hill Turnover Runs High ; Next Election May Further Reduce the Number of Career Lawmakers on Hill

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Capitol Hill Turnover Runs High ; Next Election May Further Reduce the Number of Career Lawmakers on Hill

Article excerpt

The combative 107th Congress is renowned as fiercely partisan. But voters might be surprised to hear another description of today's House and Senate that may be equally apt: inexperienced.

Inexperienced? How can that be? Four of the six longest-serving senators of all time are still in office. The most senior House member was first elected in 1955. Some days the cloakrooms seem full of lawmakers talking about their advice to President Kennedy - or, in Strom Thurmond's case, FDR.

It's true nevertheless. A spate of retirements and competitive elections through the 1990s has today resulted in a House and a Senate full of junior members. It's not the greenest Congress of recent times. But if it were a baseball team, the sports pages would say it was "rebuilding."

At times the relative rawness of Washington's legislators has complicated life for the leadership of both parties. It's also a reminder that, despite the high return rate of incumbents, the Capitol is not just full of old bulls. Throughout American history the nation's legislature has been renewed by periodic waves of newcomers.

"It's good to remember when you hear about high reelection rates that these things tend to be cyclical, and the capacity for change is there," says Thomas E. Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and coauthor of a recent book on vital statistics of Congress.

This November, that change will be most evident in South Carolina. For the first time in generations, Strom Thurmond's name won't be on a state ballot.

Senator Thurmond, a Republican who is retiring, is more than just the dean of the current Senate. He's the longest-serving Senator of all time, with seniority dating back to 1956. His departure will represent a promotion of sorts for his colleague in the South Carolina delegation, Sen. Ernest Hollings (D). Elected in 1966, Hollings is currently the longest-serving junior senator in US history.

Other current senators who are veterans even by historical standards include Sen. Robert Byrd (D) of West Virginia, and Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts. Typically, House membership churns more quickly than that of the Senate. Representatives often aspire to higher offices, such as governorships, or the Senate itself. Even so, today's House contains some members who might be judged old bulls. Rep. John Dingell (D) of Michigan was first elected in 1955, to fill a seat that had been held by his father. Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D), also from Michigan, assumed office in 1965.

But such senior lawmakers are now the exception, not the rule. Over the past ten years or so, Congress has seen a high rate of retirements by members planning a second career. Witness Sen. Fred Thompson (R) of Tennessee, who declined to run for reelection and is reported to in serious negotiations for a continuing role in the TV cop drama "Law and Order. …

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