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Home / Iowa second only to Hawaii in Senate experience
The most senior senators typically are in key leadership positions, get desks closer to the front of the Senate chamber and move into better offices that get vacated.
Now that Sen. Robert Byrd, who served 51.5 years, has died, only Hawaii's Senate delegation outranks Iowa's when it comes to seniority. Hawaii Democratic Sens. Daniel Inouye and Daniel Akaka, with a combined total of 67 years, outrank Iowa's Sens. Chuck Grassley and Tom Harkin, who have 55 years of total service.
Grassley and Harkin, in their fifth and fourth terms, respectively, say it's not the desk and office assignments that make seniority important, but the knowledge of the system that comes with the years.
That helped steer federal assistance to Iowa after the 2008 floods, they said, although they added that sort of aid shouldn't depend on seniority.
With the federal government being the insurer of last resort, “I would hope it didn't matter whether you're a freshman or a 50-year-long senator” when it comes to natural disasters, Grassley said.
(see insert) But Harkin, chairman of Health, Education, Labor and Pension Committee, said there are other keys to productivity.
“I always say that more important than seniority is doggedness. Just getting on things and keeping at it,” he said.
Seniority puts a person in position to make some things happen and block other things, University of Iowa political science Associate Professor Tim Hagle said. A senior
senator, especially the chair of a committee or subcommittee, has a great deal of power to set the agenda.
“But there has to be fight in the dog,” Hagle said. “A junior person may have a lot of fight, but may not be able to move things - just make noise. Or they get relegated to stuff no one else cares about.
Seniority can work to a senator's disadvantage, Hagle said. In 1994, Republican Greg Ganske successfully campaigned against Democratic Rep. Neal Smith, touring the central Iowa district in a 1958 DeSoto to emphasize Smith had been elected to Congress 36 years previously.
Democrat Roxanne Conlin is using a similar argument against Grassley, first elected to the House in 1974.
that Iowans aren't well-served by their senior senators is difficult, said Hagle, who noted the same argument is used against Harkin, also elected to the House in 1974, when Harkin seeks re-election.
“She can hardly
argue that we don't want someone who is so senior they are powerful,”
Hagle said, referring to Conlin. “It's not so much that we don't like your
seniority, because seniority is important.” That leaves a challenger to convince voters the incumbent has been in
office so long they've “gone Washington,” he said.