WASHINGTON — Meet the new Senate, not the same as the old Senate.
With 44 senators currently in their first terms, the Senate is newer than it has been in more than three decades — and the fresh crop of lawmakers has more power within the institution than at any time before.
The Senate isn’t getting younger: Its average age is still high, at 62 years old. But many of the chamber’s stalwarts have departed, and another six are set to leave at the end of their terms in 2014.
What’s left is a sizable bloc of inexperienced legislators who are poised to take control.
Such a high number of rookies hasn’t been seen since 1981, when 44 senators were in their first term, including 16 freshman lawmakers, many of whom arrived at the Senate on newly elected President Ronald Reagan’s coattails.
Many of the first-term senators serving today enjoy escalated, accelerated roles in the Senate and are regularly named as potential committee leaders or presidential candidates.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a staunch advocate for more oversight in the banking industry, was named immediately to the Banking Committee upon her arrival in the Senate. Sen. Marco Rubio, still in his first term, is considered a strong Republican contender for president in 2016.
By contrast, the new senators in 1981 “were not to be seen or heard” in an institution that was much more strictly hierarchical.
“The freshman senators in 1980 had no kind of impact on the organization, especially in the first two years, and didn’t get nearly the amount of coverage they are now,” said Ted Kaufman, a former senator who in 1981 was working as then-Sen. Joe Biden’s chief of staff. He added, “I think this class will have a lot more impact than the class of 1980. They didn’t get good committee assignments, they didn’t get much media attention, and they didn’t have clout.”
The results for the class were mixed. Some first-term senators serving in 1981 stayed around for much longer and established themselves as congressional veterans, such as Vice President Joe Biden, former Sen. Alan Simpson, and current Sens. Carl Levin and Chuck Grassley. Others, such as Sens. Jeremiah Denton and Paula Hawkins, lost their first bids for reelection.
In 1981, there was a drain on institutional knowledge similar to that in the current Senate — but, Kaufman argues, the effects are broader and more important now because of the relative sway held by the Senate’s newer members.
“I think now the lack of institutional knowledge is a bigger problem, because then they didn’t have any power,” Kaufman said. “The freshman senators really couldn’t do that much.”
Not so any longer. Take, for example, the scorched-earth approach adopted by Republican Sen. Ted Cruz recently with his prominent, confrontational role in a hearing on Chuck Hagel’s nomination for secretary of defense. Cruz was scorned by one more senior colleague for flouting tradition and decorum — but Cruz nevertheless received outsized media attention and, some would argue, burnished his influence.
“Every day, my responsibility is to try to do my job,” Cruz explained. “That’s what the people of Texas elected me to do, and that’s certainly what I intend to do.”
The diminished hierarchy in the Senate has enabled him to do so, and more in the spotlight than ever before.
“With each decade, there’s more equality among senators,” said Sen. Max Baucus, a Democrat who took office in 1978.
With that greater equality for newer lawmakers also comes risk for the institution at large — particularly in handing over power to senators who do not yet know their way around the building. In the best case, this can encourage reform, but such a dynamic can also inhibit legislative progress when new lawmakers try to navigate the Senate’s negotiating nuances.
Immediate power for Senate rookies can also create tensions between the new and more experienced lawmakers.
Such interplay was on prominent display last week when veteran Sen. John McCain scorned his first-term colleague, Sen. Rand Paul, for carrying forth a 13-hour talking filibuster to urge the administration to be more forthcoming with its policy on drones. The squabble bore a familiar narrative of “new versus old.”
But not all senators are worried about the Senate’s new wave taking over.
Asked whether he was concerned about a dearth of institutional knowledge in the Senate today, Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch, who was serving his first term in 1981, laughed, “There’s still a number of us old guys.”