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Kim: End Seniority to Help Depolarize Congress

Second, the relative lack of moderates among top committee members means many Americans’ viewpoints are underrepresented. According to Gallup, more than a third of Americans consider themselves to be “moderate,” while just 10 percent see themselves as “very conservative” and only 6 percent say they’re “very liberal.”

Yet, of the 12 top Members of the marquee House committees named above, none are Blue Dogs or New Democrats while just three are members of the semi-moderate Republican Main Street Partnership.

Finally, by essentially reserving the benefits of chairmanships to safe seats, the seniority system makes already-vulnerable moderates even less secure.

Being a committee chairman is powerful protection for incumbency, given its attendant influence and fundraising ability. But Members in safe seats need that boost the least. Among House Democrats in 2010, for example, New Democrats and Blue Dogs spent twice as much as their colleagues in the Congressional Progressive Caucus to keep their seats. They were also much more likely to be the targets of outside spending.

The Cook Political Report predicts there will be just 96 swing districts after this year — a 40 percent drop since 2000. This means an ever-diminishing center and a growing no-man’s land between increasingly divided poles. More so than ever, moderates will be a vital bridge between the two poles — if they’re around.

As former Rep. Brian Baird (D-Wash.) told the Wall Street Journal, “There is a wisdom that comes with greater years. ... But sometimes in Congress that isn’t the case with everyone. We’d be better off with picking chairmen on the basis of who has the best ideas and vision rather than longevity.”

While efforts to weaken the seniority system have been attempted before, the need for reform is more urgent than ever. Ending the seniority system would not only reward merit over longevity, it would give more voice to the much-needed and increasingly vital center.

Anne Kim is managing director for policy and strategy at the Progressive Policy Institute.

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