By JON ALLAN
It’s the 220th anniversary of the first Congress, and what better what to mark the time than by starting a collection of those who have sat in the legislative seats the longest. Approximately 12,000 individuals have served in the House and Senate and of those, only five have served for more than 50 years while fewer than 40 have served 40-plus years. This may change in the current Congress as one more senator, Daniel Inouye, could reach the 50-year mark and West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd may soon set a new record as the longest serving person to ever serve in office.
Interestingly, almost all of the top longest serving members are Democrats of the 20th century and a large number were conservatives. The reason may be because many came from the South in the days when it was a Democratic majority. The seniority system dictated who held the power and how it was used, a prime example of this being Robert Byrd. A bigot who once belonged to the KKK, Byrd came to the House in 1953. He opposed Civil Rights up through the 1960s, but he changed with the times by accepting Civil Rights and apologizing for his previous stands. He also moved politically from conservatism to liberalism. Byrd was reelected in 2006, and holds the record for Senate longevity. As one of the last true orators in elected office, Byrd began a series of speeches in 1981 to edify his colleagues that were later published as The Senate 1789-1989. The book is brilliant and a must for the student of the Senate.
Currently, the longest serving member of Congress is Carl Hayden, who served 56 years and 319 days representing Arizona. Hayden first came to the House when Arizona became a state in 1912. He was known as the “Silent Senator,” who wielded power because of his seniority, but he did not seek the limelight, preferring to be one of the Senate’s “insiders.”
Going down the list of the longest serving members of Congress, other Southerners stand out. Most were conservatives and racists, including the Senate’s Strom Thurmond, John Stennis, Ernest Hollings, Richard Russell, Russell Long, James Eastland and John Sparkman. The House’s longest serving include Mississippi’s Jamie Whitten, who served 53 years, Carl Vinson of Georgia, a 50-year veteran known for his strong support of the military, and William Natcher of Kentucky, who holds the record of 18,401 consecutive House votes.
This year, Detroit Congressman John Dingell will pass Jamie Whitten as the longest serving House member. Elected in 1955, Dingell was considered the third most powerful Congressman, but he lost his power when the new Congress voted him out of the chairmanship of the Energy and Commerce Committee. Of the five individuals who have served more than 50 years, Dingell is the most liberal and has the best chance of reaching Hayden’s 56 years.
One of its most interesting individuals, Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, has less than a year to reach 50 years in Congress. The first Japanese-American to serve in Congress, Inouye’s ambition was to be a surgeon. During WWII he served with the famed Nisei 442nd Regimental Combat team, which ultimately became the most highly decorated unit in Army history. A true war hero, Inouye single-handedly attacked a German machine gun nest. He was shot in the abdomen and was hit directly with a grenade that would cost him his arm. He received a Distinguished Service Cross that was later upgraded to the Medal of Honor when the Army acknowledged that racism had denied him and others the MOH. In 1959, when Hawaii became a state, Inouye was elected as its first congressman. He later went to the Senate in 1963. Other than Inouye, only several minority members have served for any major length of time.
African-American John Conyers of Michigan comes in 10th for his tenure in the House, with 44 years now starting his 23rd term. He heads the Judiciary Committee, where he is the only member to have served during both the Nixon and Clinton Impeachments.
New Yorker Emmanuel Celler, a mixed Jewish/Catholic, was days shy of serving 50 years and is best known for his strong stands on immigration, his vocal and unsuccessful battle to help Jews escape the Holocaust and Civil Rights legislation. Adolph Sabbath, a Czech born Jew, served 45 years from a Chicago district and was a staunch New Dealer, but he left little impression during his long tenure.
Because of the seniority system, several long-term members have made Speaker. Of all those who have served long terms, Illinois Republican “Uncle Joe” Cannon was probably the most dictatorial with his power and served 48 years. Cannon came to the House in 1873, serving as Speaker from 1903-1911. He ruled the House with an iron fist to such an extent that in 1910 a coalition of Democrats and moderate Republicans stripped him of his power.
Democrat Sam Rayburn of Texas served consecutive years in the House. First elected to office in 1913, he served as Speaker from 1940-1961 with the exception of two Congresses when the Republicans were in power. Rayburn was a quiet man who chose to run Congress with a select group of drinking and poker playing buddies known as The Board of Education. He generally backed Democratic policies, though sometimes tended to be on the moderate-conservative side.
Ted Kennedy, one of the great politicians of the 20th century, has served more than 46 years and is ranked 13th in longevity in the Senate. Although diagnosed with brain cancer, he is back to active service and is considered by his colleagues, including conservatives, to be one of the true greats of Congress.
With most serving in the pre-Autopen era, many of the longest serving Congress members have authentic material that is relatively common and none of these individuals fall into the expensive category. Most, in signature form, run from $20 to $50. A few, like Speaker Rayburn and Carter Glass, bring a higher price. For his collection, price is not a concern—finding where to purchase them is. Few dealers list obscure congressmen and so you may be able to easily pick up the bigger names, but where do you find a Sidney Yates (9th longest serving House member), or George McMahon, William Poage, Clarence Cannon etc. This is where the adventure of collecting comes in. Buying collections is your best chance of finding that odd-ball name to fill in a missing gap.