Capitol Report: Newcomers? Congress is still all about longtimers — of which there are more Democrats than Republicans

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Money & Politics reporter

Interactives Editor

Members of the House are sworn in during the beginning of the 116th Congress.

The new Congress that kicked off this month features plenty of firsts and newcomers, but it isn’t short on lawmakers who have spent decades on the job.

And it’s the Democratic politicians, on average, with longer tenures, according to data on the 116th Congress. That’s even as the party becomes known for its outspoken freshmen, such as New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or Michigan Rep. Rashida Tlaib.

The average time in office among current Democratic members of the House of Representatives is 9.7 years, well above the average Republican tenure of 7.8 years. That comes from MarketWatch calculations based on figures from the House Clerk’s Office.

In the Senate, Democrats on average have 10.5 years of experience in their current roles, ahead of the GOP average of 9.5 years, according to data for that chamber.

So why the difference? Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, suggests it has to do with core motivations.

The average time in office for Congress is down from the 2007 peaks.

“Democrats believe in government and its role in society, and usually want to expand that role,” Sabato told MarketWatch. “Republicans often come from the private sector to run for Congress in order to limit and trim back government. Which motivation would keep you in politics longer?”

Republicans, more likely to have come from the business world, tend to want to return to that type of work, given it has higher pay and better perks, Sabato said. He cautioned that his take is just a theory, and one would “have to do some rigorous surveys and interviews to come to a fuller explanation.”

The newcomer making the most waves is arguably Ocasio-Cortez, who responded with “New party, who dis?” when former Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman said she wasn’t the party’s future. Some members of the House Democratic caucus are reportedly mounting an operation aimed at bringing Ocasio-Cortez into the fold, after becoming exasperated with the anti-establishment democratic socialist.

The average tenure for all representatives in the 116th Congress is 8.6 years, and the corresponding figure for all senators is 10.1 years, according to a Congressional Research Service report on service patterns that was published this month. The report also features the above chart, which shows that average time in office largely has been decreasing since 2007, but remains relatively high if you look back over many decades.

“Many lawmakers in the 18th and early 19th centuries might be characterized as ‘citizen legislators,’ holding full-time nonpolitical employment and serving in Congress on a part-time basis for a short number of years,” CRS analysts note in their report. The 20th century saw “congressional careers lengthened” as the House and Senate “became more professionalized.”

This report was first published on Jan. 9, 2019.

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