Last week, the longest-serving Member of Congress, Democratic Representative John Dingell of Michigan, announced that he would leave office at the end of this Congress. Representative Dingell has served since 1955, so there is plenty that could be said about him, but for now, we will focus only on one of the many positions he has held over the course of almost six decades: the Deanship of the House.
The Dean of the U.S. House of Representatives is the longest continuously serving Member of the body from either party. It is a ceremonial position, whose duty is to administer the oath of office to the Speaker of the House of Representatives at the start of a new Congress.
Since the Dean really only has a single and ceremonial duty, the office obviously does not carry much power and weight in itself. However, many of the men—there haven’t been any women yet—who have held the position have had significant power either formally, because of other positions they have held, or informally, because of their influence. For instance, the list of the Deans of the House is littered with some of the body’s most prominent Members. Eight have been Speakers of the House: Frederick Muhlenberg, Nathaniel Macon, Linn Boyd, Samuel J. Randall, Thomas “Czar” Reed, Joseph “Uncle Joe” Cannon, Frederick H. Gillett, and Sam Rayburn. Sereno Payne didn’t quite make it all the way to the top, but he was the first to hold the office of House Majority Leader, a position created in 1899. Rayburn was also House Majority and Minority Leader. Other Deans have been Chairmen of various committees within the House, like Adolph Sabath of the Rules Committee or Emmanuel Celler of the Judiciary Committee. Some Deans have held significant office outside of the House of Representatives. John Quincy Adams is best known for serving as President, but he actually entered the House in 1831, after leaving the White House, and accumulated seniority to become Dean. Other Deans have been Senators.
A number of the Deans who have been Speakers have left a lasting mark on the House. Frederick Muhlenberg has the distinction of being first to preside over the body. The 20th century Deans in particular have been instrumental in molding the institution into what it is today. The indomitable Czar Thomas Reed’s most significant achievement was to ensure that the House was a majoritarian institution. While simultaneously serving as the Speaker of the House and the Chairman of the Rules Committee, he broke through the obstructionist tactics of his Democratic colleagues and instituted a number of rules changes that concentrated power in his hands. Fellow Republican Joe Cannon, continued to enjoy the power that Reed had won for the Speaker. However, he ruled the House with such an iron grip that many Members, including his own Republicans, rebelled and managed to strip the Speaker of a number of his powers, including the right sit as Chairman of the Rules Committee.
The last Speaker to be Dean, Sam Rayburn of Texas was the longest-serving Speaker and one of the most legendary. Loads could be said about his tenure, but one of the most important was that he presided over the beginnings of some critical changes in the Democratic Party and the House more generally. Although Speaker Rayburn was the head of his party, he did not enjoy as much power over the other Members as a party leader does today. The committee chairmen were selected based on seniority, insulating them from party control and allowing them to stymie legislation they disagreed with, even if their caucus supported it. The committee chairmen were often conservatives from the South who opposed a variety of progressive bills, especially concerning civil rights. This angered the liberal wing of the party, which particularly desired to support President Kennedy’s “New Frontier” agenda. Rayburn, aptly known as “Mr. Democrat”, threw his lot in with the majority of the caucus and edged towards reform. In his last term as Speaker—in the last months of his life—he found himself in a battle with the recalcitrant Chairman of the Rules Committee, Howard Smith, who used his committee to halt progress on virtually any bill he disliked, especially civil rights. In 1961, Rayburn undertook to reassert the Speaker’s authority over the House. On January 31, he called up a resolution to expand the Rules Committee, so he could then install Members favorable to liberal policies. This was one of the most epic battles on the Floor of the House, and Rayburn emerging victorious—but by a margin of only five votes. True, Smith was still the Chairman, and the action did not directly affect the power of the Chairmen of other committees, but it a big step in reforming the seniority system.
The conflicts among the Democrats in the middle of the 20th century involved a number of the Deans in addition to Rayburn. On the one hand, according to The House, the official history of the body, Adolph Sabath, the Chairman of the House Rules Committee, supported the Democratic agenda over and against the conservative Democrats and Republicans on his committee who frequently cooperated to block legislation. Likewise, another Dean, Emmanuel Celler, the Chairman of the Judiciary Committee, supported civil rights legislation. On the other hand, Representative Wright Patman, the Chairman of the House Banking and Currency Committee, was denied the authority to appoint subcommittees and special committees beginning with the 90th Congress (1967-1969). This is not to say that each was engaged in these conflicts as Dean, but by the time each was Dean, he would have accumulated a lot of seniority and power within the party and would have had a number of battle scars from his time in Congress.
Just as the House evolves over a period of time, so can individual Members of Congress. A fascinating phenomenon to study is how much a long-serving Member has developed, if at all, and the House Deans provide ample material to examine. For example, Representative Jamie Whitten, Representative Dingell’s predecessor as the Dean of the House, is an example of the striking change that can occur over a long career. In his early days, he signed the Southern Manifesto, a statement disapproving the Brown v. Board of Education decision, and he also ran his 1962 campaign against a pro-civil rights Democrat saying his opponent was a “traitor” to the “Mississippi way of life”. But, at the end of his career, he voted for the 1991 reauthorization of the Civil Rights Act. Likewise, he initially opposed many public assistance programs, such as Medicare and food stamps, but eventually came around to support them in subsequent decades. According to the Baltimore Sun, he was persuaded to support liberal legislation after his friend Speaker Tip O’Neill guaranteed that he would be the Appropriations Committee Chairman when liberal Members were looking to prevent him from taking control of the panel in 1978.
Representative Whitten’s and Representative Dingell’s careers and politics are in many ways emblematic of the Democratic Party of the 20th century. The presumptive next Dean of the House, Representative John Conyers continues this tradition. As with other Deans mentioned, he has served as a Chairman (for both the Oversight and Government Reform Committee and for the Judiciary Committee). He also typifies many of the changes that have marked Congress over the past few decades. The Dean and founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus, Conyers will be the first African-American Dean of the House. So, even though the Deanship is purely ceremonial and honorific office, Representative Conyers’ accession to it will be quite meaningful. Just like the Deanships of so many of the men that have gone before him.
Remini, Robert. The House: The History of the House of Representatives. New York: HaperCollins-Smithsonian, 2006.