Why House Leaders Keep Getting Younger

Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the executive editor of Bloomberg News, before which he was a reporter, bureau chief and executive Washington editor at the Wall Street Journal.
Read More.
a | A

The chairmen of the standing committees in the U.S. House and Senate have more differences than mere party labels. The Republican House chairmen are younger and less experienced than their Senate counterparts.

The average age of the 16 Democratic Senate chairmen is 68; for the 19 House committees, it's about 10 years younger.

This reflects a lower turnover in the Senate and the fact that the House is more often a stepping stone to higher office. Six of the Senate committee leaders were elected in the 1970s or 1980s; only two of the House chairmen were.

Reflecting the more prominent role of women in the Democratic Party, there are five female Senate panel heads, or about one-third of the total. Only two Republican women lead committees in the House.

In the Senate, seniority is usually the sole criterion for selection. As I discuss in my column this week, this system could turn out to be a problem with the new chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, Robert Menendez of New Jersey, who is under an ethics cloud.

Seniority matters less in the House. After the 1974 Watergate class of Democrats arrived, three senior old-line Southern House chairmen were ousted. But the biggest change occurred 20 years later, during the Newt Gingrich speakership, when Republicans decided that more committee leaders would be picked on the basis of competence, or fundraising prowess, instead of just length of service. Also, Republicans set a limit of three terms for committee chairmen unless the caucus waives the limit.

These reforms enabled Paul Ryan of Wisconsin to assume the chairmanship of the House Budget Committee when he was only 40. He's now 43.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Albert R Hunt at ahunt1@bloomberg.net