Senility and the Senate of the United States

Three issues loomed large in the 1923-25 Congress: whether to begin congressional and presidential terms in January instead of March, whether to stop appointing committee chairs by seniority, and filibusters.

As this April 1923 New York Times Magazine article described:

From the welter of discussion that followed the late and little lamented Sixty-seventh Congress, three important considerations have taken root and will be fought out when the Congress next convenes. They have to do primarily with Senator Charles Curtis’s program for strangling the marathon talking contests known as filibusters; with Senator Medill McCormick’s fight against the moss-worn custom that the oldest committee member automatically becomes its head (known as the rule of seniority chairmanship), and with Senator George Norris’s constitutional amendment to end the congressional and presidential terms in January instead of in March (which would amount to virtual slaughter of the “lame-duck brigade”).

What happened with each of these three issues?

Filibuster. The filibuster remains alive and well. In fact, senators no longer even need to engage in “marathon talking contests,” as they did in 1923. Since the 1970s, the so-called “silent filibuster” has gained prominence instead.

January. Congressional and presidential terms would begin in January, instead of March, when the Constitution’s 20th Amendment was ratified in 1933 — a decade after the NYT article’s 1923 publication.

Committee chairs. The practice of committee chair positions going to the most senior member of the majority party generally remains the practice today.

However, there are some exceptions. For example, congressional Republicans have established a six-year limit for serving as the GOP’s top member on a committee. That limit applies even if the party is in the minority for some or all of that six-year period. Democrats have no such rule.

There can also be individual exceptions. In November 2020, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) stepped down as top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, in part due to concerns over her age and senility. In February 2023, Sen. Feinstein announced her retirement from the Senate altogether, although she will continue to serve until her term ends in January 2025.

Senility and the Senate of the United States

Published: Sunday, April 1, 1923

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