Although she is first in publicity, Hillary Clinton, the first lady and now junior senator from New York, is ranked 97th out of 100 in Senate seniority. How is rank determined, and what difference does it make?
Each party has similar criteria for ranking new members; the Senate Rules Committee then determines an overall ranking as re-elected senators move up and newly elected senators come in below them. This year 11 new senators were sworn in, nine Democrats and two Republicans. The Democrats rank the freshmen in this order: former members of the House, former members of the Cabinet, and former governors. That puts, for example, Bill Nelson of Florida, who served six House terms, and Maria Cantwell of Washington, who served one, ahead of Clinton. It also puts the two Republicans, George Allen of Virginia, a former House member and governor, and John Ensign of Nevada, also a former House member, ahead of her. For tie-breaking purposes, or to determine the order of new senators who do not have the qualifying level of previous government service to bump them up the ladder, seniority is then decided by the state’s population. (The Republicans make this determination by drawing lots.) That’s how Clinton ended up ahead of fellow freshmen and fellow non-House members and nongovernors Jon Corzine of New Jersey (98th), Jean Carnahan of Missouri (99th), and Mark Dayton of Minnesota (100th). If the late Mel Carnahan of Missouri had lived to be sworn in instead of his widow, he would have outranked Clinton because he was a governor. The No. 1-ranked senator, winner of the Methusela award in all categories (longest-serving and oldest senator), is Republican Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, who was elected in 1954 and is 98 years old. The highest-ranking Democrat is West Virginia’s Robert Byrd, who was elected in 1959. Although Thurmond started out as a Democrat, his party switch was not held against him for seniority purposes.
Seniority conveys a number of advantages, both significant and symbolic. For one thing it determines where you stand in line on committee rankings. If both Clinton and Dayton ended up on the same committee, she would outrank him if there were an opening for chairman or ranking member. It also helps determine desk assignment, office assignment, and parking space. In the 1970s a new Senate tradition was born: The outgoing senator would resign a few days before the end of the old Congress to allow a successor to be sworn in ahead of the pack and thus get a jump on seniority. But in the 1980s, Sens. Byrd and Howard Baker decided it was unseemly to shove people out the door and unfair to those who couldn’t give their predecessor a push, and the practice was stopped.
Explainer thanks Don Ritchie of the Senate Historical Office.