Iowa's U.S. House contingent has least seniority since Civil War

For as long as most Iowans can remember, our state has had at least one long-serving U.S. House representative. But following Dave Loebsack’s retirement and a second straight election in which Iowans voted out two members of Congress, our state’s House contingent now has less seniority than at any time since the 1860s.

Democratic Representative Cindy Axne (IA-03) is now the “dean” of Iowa’s House delegation, having been re-elected to a second term in November. The other three House members sworn in on January 3 are all newcomers:

Republican Ashley Hinson defeated first-term Representative Abby Finkenauer in IA-01.

Republican Mariannette Miller-Meeks was “provisionally” seated to represent IA-02, where she was certified the winner by a six-vote margin. (Democratic candidate Rita Hart has appealed that result to the House Committee on Administration, having identified enough legally cast and uncounted ballots to reverse the outcome.)

Republican Randy Feenstra defeated 18-year incumbent Steve King in last year’s GOP primary to represent IA-04 before winning the general election.

Iowa voters used to re-elect incumbents reliably, other than in wave years. When Finkenauer and Axne defeated sitting House members Rod Blum and David Young in 2018, it was the first time since 1974 that two of Iowa’s U.S. House members lost re-election bids in the same year. In recent decades, turnover in our state’s Congressional delegation has typically happened after someone vacated a House seat to retire or seek higher office, or when redistricting forced two incumbents into the same district.

I wondered when Iowa last had no long-tenured House member. Wikipedia has pages listing every member of Congress from Iowa alphabetically, as well as by election year. Even following wave elections such as 1932, 1964, and 1974, Iowa had at least one House member with several terms under his belt. (No woman represented this state in the lower chamber of Congress until 2019.)

You have to go all the way back to 1863 to find an Iowa delegation with so little experience. Our state’s number of Congressional districts increased from two to six following the 1860 census. In addition to the four members elected in 1862 from the new third, fourth, fifth, and sixth districts, Iowans elected a new representative for the second district, where the incumbent had retired. The senior member of Iowa’s House delegation in 1863 was James F. Wilson, who was beginning his second term.

Seniority matters because long-serving members of Congress have a better chance of gaining seats or leadership roles on coveted committees. If they don’t blow it, that is. When Republicans gained the House majority after the 2010 elections, five-term incumbent King was expected to move from ranking member to chair of the House Judiciary’s subcommittee on immigration. But the Judiciary Committee chair passed him over for that position, probably because of King’s many bigoted comments about immigrants and plans to target birthright citizenship.

Leaders don’t always follow seniority when handing out assignments. Finkenauer was named chair of a subcommittee on on rural development, agriculture, trade and entrepreneurship during her first term. So Iowa’s House members could rise to influential positions before long. However, those with more experience have better prospects. Neal Smith had served in Congress for 22 years before becoming a subcommittee chair on the powerful House Appropriations Committee.

No other state with more than one House district has as little seniority as Iowa in the new Congress. Only Kansas comes close, with two first-term representatives, one beginning her second term, and one beginning his third term. Among states with a single at-large House district, North Dakota and South Dakota are represented by members first elected in 2018, like Axne. Montana’s representative is just beginning his first term after winning an open-seat race in November.

UPDATE: Hinson was named to the House Appropriations Committee, Radio Iowa’s O.Kay Henderson reported on January 13. Giving a newly-elected member a prestigious committee assignment is a clear sign House Republican leaders want to protect Hinson. According to this history of the House Appropriations Committee, Neal Smith and Tom Latham (the last two Iowans to serve on Appropriations) were first named to the panel during their second terms in Congress.

Top image: Official photos of Iowa’s current U.S. House members. From left, Representatives Ashley Hinson, Mariannette Miller-Meeks, Cindy Axne, and Randy Feenstra.

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