Some of the most influential founding fathers, including Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and James Madison, strongly favored congressional term limits. Flash forward to the 21st century, and those founders would be astounded at the amount of time some current representatives have been in Congress. Some critics of the current system advocate term limits, but even they acknowledge the potential risks. With term limits, members of Congress would not have to fear the wrath of voters, which could make them prone to questionable behavior. Also, term limits could dramatically increase the influence of career bureaucrats. But all that’s an argument for another day. Here are the eight U.S. Congressmen with the longest current tenures in office as of 2011.
6 (tie). Don Young
The 78-year-old Young, a Republican who represents Alaska’s at-large congressional district, joined the U.S. House in 1973. Largely viewed as a moderate, his most notable legislation in recent years might have been sponsoring the bill that created the Transportation Security Administration. But he’s also supported more questionable projects, including the infamous $225 million “Bridge to Nowhere.” Young has also faced questions from critics about ethical issues in recent years, including one strange case in 2006 in which he earmarked $10 million for an interstate highway exchange in Florida that residents and local government officials there didn’t want. The project, however, benefited a local real estate developer who had raised $40,000 for Young. Young is also no stranger to controversial quotes, once telling Rolling Stone magazine that “Environmentalists are a self-centered bunch of waffle-stomping, Harvard-graduating, intellectual idiots” who “are not Americans, never have been Americans, never will be Americans.” (Note: Young, Pete Stark and Thad Cochran are tied for sixth on this list, elected to office in 1972.)
6 (tie). Pete Stark
Stark, 79, a Democrat who represents California’s 13th congressional district, was first elected in 1972, and he’s been handily reelected every two years since. But that doesn’t make him a beloved figure for everyone in the historically liberal district that includes parts of Oakland and surrounding suburbs. None other than the San Francisco Chronicle has noted his penchant for “buffoonery.” In 2003, after Stark called a fellow House member a “little wimp” and invited him to fight, a Chronicle editorial noted, “Only a politician who assumes he has a job for life could behave so badly on a semi-regular basis by spewing personalized invective that might get him punched in certain East Bay taverns. … Surely there must be someone along the shoreline between Alameda and Fremont who could represent the good citizens of the district with class and dignity. It’s not the case now.” In between dropping controversial quotes, Stark has been an ardent supporter of issues such as national health care.
6 (tie). Thad Cochran
After serving three terms in the U.S. House, the Mississippi Republican was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1978 at age 40. A former Democrat, Cochran is regarded as rather moderate for a GOP legislator in the South. Extremely popular in his home state, Cochran was named by Time Magazine as one of “America’s 10 Best Senators” in 2006. On a less positive note, in 2010 the Conservative national watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste dubbed Cochran “The King of Earmarks” after revealing he had pushed $490 million in earmarks that year, most in the country.
4 (tie). Bill Young
The most senior Republican member of Congress, the 80-year-old was elected to office in 1970. He represents Florida’s 10th congressional district, covering the St. Petersburg area. Once considered a solidly Republican district, the demographics have shifted in recent years, with 51 percent of voters choosing Barack Obama for president in 2008. Young has still been a shoo-in for reelection every couple of years. His longtime membership on the House Appropriations Committee certainly hasn’t hurt his standing with the local electorate in terms of influence. For a politician with more than 40 years of service, Young has had a career remarkably free of controversy. The St. Petersburg Times reported in 2008 that Young had helped steer federal money to two local companies that employed his sons. Young’s supporters argued that is not illegal and is a common practice for members of Congress. It wasn’t the first time a member of Young’s immediate family made the news — his wife was escorted out of the U.S. Capitol before the 2006 State of the Union address, for wearing a T-shirt that read, “Support The Troops — Defending Our Freedom.” Capitol police later apologized.
4 (tie). Charles Rangel
With his slicked-back hair and stylish clothing, the 81-year-old Democrat is one of the most recognizable members of Congress. Rangel represents New York’s 15th district, which covers Upper Manhattan, Harlem and surrounding areas and is regarded as one of the most Democratic districts in the U.S. (Barack Obama captured 93 percent of the vote there in the 2008 presidential election). A Purple Heart and Bronze star winner who was wounded in action in the Korean War, Rangel returned to the U.S. and obtained a law degree from St. John’s University. First elected to office in 1970, Rangel swiftly rose to political prominence, becoming both a leading figure in the New York political community and serving on prestigious congressional committees. His rise to power culminated in 2007, when he took over as chair of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee. It was a longtime dream for Rangel to reach the post, but the dream job lasted only three years. Rangel spent much of his time in that post defending himself against allegations of several different ethics violations, including unreported income and unpaid taxes. He stepped down as Ways and Means chair in March 2010. Despite the controversy, Rangel was elected to another term in November 2010. A month later, the House censured him for ethics violations.
3. John Conyers
In November 1964, a few months after four long-haired young musicians named The Beatles rocked America for the first time on The Ed Sullivan Show, a 35-year-old Korean War veteran named John Conyers was elected to the U.S. Congress. Almost a half century later, Conyers is still going strong, representing the district that includes northwest Detroit. The 82-year-old Democrat, the ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee, has been a consistent champion of liberal and progressive causes and a thorn in the side of conservatives. Coincidence or not, Michigan Republican legislators designed new state house districts in 2011, sticking Conyers in a new district with roughly 20 percent of his former constituents, and a heavier Republican population. The result? Conyers could face a legitimate challenge in the 2011 fall election.
2. Daniel Inouye
Inouye’s life reads like a Hollywood screenplay that would be rejected by studios because it’s too good to be true, full of heroics and lacking any whiff of controversy or scandal that could further the plot dynamics. Born in 1924 in Honolulu, Hawaii, Inouye quickly signed up for the Army in 1943 after the U.S. dropped its ban on Japanese-Americans. In April 1945, while storming a German position, Inouye was shot in the stomach, but continued, before another blast blew off his right arm. Inouye shrugged off the injuries and destroyed the German position with one arm. That tale was recounted more than once as Inouye won election to the U.S. House seat in the new state of Hawaii in 1959. Inouye served in the House for three years before running for the Senate, winning election in 1962. He’s been there ever since, serving on some of the most influential committees in that body. The 87-year-old Democrat currently serves as chair of the U.S. Senate Committee on Appropriations. With more than 48 years of service in the Senate, Inouye trails only former West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd (51 years, 176 days) as the longest-serving senator.
1. John Dingell
Meet John Dingell, the longest-serving member in the history of the U.S. House of Representatives. Dingell’s father was a member of the U.S. House, representing a southeastern Michigan district for 23 years. When he died in 1955, the 29-year-old Dingell won the special election to succeed his father. He’s still there. Although the Democrat is a consistent champion of liberal causes, some of Dingell’s political positions are famously incongruous. He once opposed mandatory busing for desegregation in Detroit, voted for a partial-birth abortion ban, has opposed tighter air pollution standards on U.S. automakers and is a strong opponent of gun control.