7 Longest Serving Current Members of Congress

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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. Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), who entered Congress in January 1973, is currently the politician with the longest tenure, but he’s retiring April 1 due to ill health. Here’s how the other longtime members of Congress stack up in terms of longevity.

 

6 (Tie). Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.)

Entered Congress: January 1979

Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner’s official portrait from 1998. © George and Jim Pollard

Sensenbrenner, 74, has wielded considerable influence on Capitol Hill during his long career, including a stint as chair of the House Judiciary Committee (2001-2007). An heir to the founder of Kimberly-Clark Corp., Sensenbrenner has been outspoken on national security and immigration issues; he introduced the Patriot Act to the House in 2001. The conservative publication Human Events also recognized Sensenbrenner as its 2006 “Man of the Year” for his stance on illegal immigration.

 

6 (Tie). Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.)

Entered Congress: January 1979

Sen. Richard Shelby is honored by the National Wildlife Federation. Credit: NWF

Originally elected to the U.S. House as a Democrat, Shelby flipped sides in 1994, during his second term in the U.S. Senate. Shelby has chaired both the Senate Banking Committee and Senate Intelligence Committee in the past, and is expected to be named Chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee when Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) resigns next year. The 83-year-old Shelby still gets out and meets his constituents; in fact, he visits each of the state’s 67 counties each year, something he’s been doing for more than three decades.

 

5. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah)

Entered Congress: January 1977

Sen. Orrin Hatch will retire at the end of his term in 2019.

The venerable Republican from Utah is set to retire from the Senate at the end of his term in 2019, two months shy of his 85th birthday. Hatch has long been one of the most respected members of Congress, and had been considered a possible nominee for the Supreme Court on several occasions dating back to at least the mid-1980s. He’s considered a fiscal hawk, and has sponsored a balanced budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution 17 times while in office. In his career, he’s sponsored or co-sponsored almost 800 bills that eventually became law, tops among current U.S. Senators.

 

4. Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.)

Entered Congress: November 1976

Sen. Ed Markey is one of the most reliable liberal votes in the Senate.

While one of the junior members of the U.S. Senate, Markey is no stranger to Capitol Hill. The Army veteran spent 37 years in the U.S. House, then in 2013 won a special election to fill the seat of Sen. John Kerry, who had stepped down to become Secretary of State. Markey won the seat outright in 2014. The 71-year-old Markey’s favorite causes include environmental issues and tougher gun control laws. According to GovTrack.us, Markey is the second-most reliable Democratic vote in the Senate, behind only fellow Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren.

 

2 (Tie). Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa)

Entered Congress: January 1975

Sen. Chuck Grassley has not missed a Senate vote in almost 25 years, a Senate record. © Gage Skidmore

Say what you will about Grassley — and like any politician he’s got fans and detractors — but he never, ever misses a vote. The 84-year-old senator has not missed a Senate vote since mid-1993. That breaks the 22-year mark held by the late Sen. William Proxmire (D-Wis.). He’s considered one of the more moderate Republicans in the Senate, ranking 45th of 54 GOP senators on the GovTrack.us Conservative Index. Grassley served three terms in the U.S. House before earning election to the Senate in 1980 on the coattails of Ronald Reagan.

 

2 (Tie). Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.)

Entered Congress: January 1975

Sen. Patrick Leahy served a lengthy stint as chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The 77-year-old senator has wielded great influence through the years, including a stint as chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee from 2007-2015. Leahy has been one of the most vocal senators in recent years on the issue of government transparency.

 

1. Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska)

Entered Congress: March 1973

Rep. Don Young has a knack for colorful — and sometimes controversial — quotes.

The 78-year-old Young represents Alaska’s at-large congressional district. 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 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.”

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Five lawmakers who entered Congress in January 1981 are tied for eighth on the active longevity list. They are Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) and Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.).

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The author is a longtime professional journalist who has interviewed everyone from presidential contenders to hall of fame athletes to rock 'n' roll legends while covering politics, sports, and other topics for both local and national publications and websites. His latest passions are history, geography and travel. He's traveled extensively around the United States seeking out the hidden wonders of the country.