The House had one of its rarest celebrations earlier this week: It recognized Congressman Don Young, Alaska’s sole Representative, as its new Dean. The Dean of the U.S. House of Representatives is the longest continuously serving Member of the body from either party. The position is ceremonial and the incumbent’s duty is to administer the oath of office to the Speaker of the House of Representatives at the start of a new Congress. Representative Young has been in office since March 6, 1973. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan honored him with a speech on the Floor of the House:
When a previous Dean, Representative John Dingell, retired, we wrote about how even though the position does not possess much inherent power, its office-holders can actually be quite important. Here’s a look at how the Deans can be significant:
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.
(For the entire post on the Deanship, visit “The Deans of the House: Capping Off a Career.”)
Like previous Deans, Representative Don Young has made his mark on both his home state and the House. In addition to serving the public as a soldier, teacher and elected official, he has served the House as the chairman of two committees, Resources (104th-106th Congresses) and Transportation and Infrastructure (107th-109th Congresses). The House Republicans have a six-year term limit on serving as Chair of a committee, so Representative Young is no longer eligible to lead those panels; however, he remains a member of both. Congratulations to Representative Young!
Mark Strand is the President of the Congressional Institute and Timothy Lang is a research director. The Sausage Factory blog is a Congressional Institute project dedicated to explaining parliamentary procedure, Congressional politics, and other issues pertaining to the Legislative Branch.