“The first 30 years are the hardest,” Edith Nourse Rogers of Massachusetts said of her more than three decades in the U.S. House of Representatives. The former Red Cross volunteer nurse compared her tenure to “taking care of the sick. You start it and you like the work, and you just keep on.” To date, 259 Members have served 30 years or more in the U.S. Congress, constituting just two percent of the total historic membership. Yet in an institution where long service often yields greater power, many of these Members became some of the House’s most famous and influential people.
Carl Vinson of Georgia became the first Member to serve more than 50 years on November 4, 1964. And with that record in hand . . . Vinson retired. “I’m going to wear out, not rust out,” claimed the feisty Georgian. Born in Milledgeville—in central Georgia just northeast of Macon—in 1883, Vinson was the youngest Member of the 63rd Congress (1913–1915) when he won a special election on November 3, 1914. Vinson arrived at the Capitol during the run up to U.S. intervention in World War I, won an assignment to the Naval Affairs Committee in 1917, and never looked back. Named the chairman of the committee in 1931, he spent the next decade advocating American military preparedness in the face of increased calls for isolation from war in Europe and Asia. Vinson's leadership throughout World War II propelled him to the helm of the newly-created Armed Services Committee in 1948. Perched atop of this powerful panel, Vinson controlled military budgets with an iron fist, earning the nicknames “Swamp Fox” and “Mr. Pentagon.” On November 18, 1963—his 80th birthday—Vinson announced his retirement at the end of the 88th Congress (1963–1965). As he left the Capitol for the last time on Christmas Day, 1964, one reporter predicted his record tenure was one “that can’t be matched anytime soon, and may never be equaled.”
But Vinson’s record was broken . . . by another young man who won a special election on the brink of war. Thirty-one-year-old Mississippi Representative Jamie Whitten won election to the House on November 1, 1941, just in time to vote in favor of declaring war on Japan a little more than a month later. In 1943, Whitten won a seat on the powerful House Appropriations Committee and in 1979, he became the panel’s chairman. The avowed New Dealer and survivor of the Great Depression spent more than five decades in the House defending federal programs, especially in rural districts like his own northern Mississippi home. “Since I’ve been here, more and more, we’ve met local problems with federal programs,” he observed in his customary quiet, southern drawl. “And I’m proud of that.” On January 4, 1992, Whitten surpassed Vinson’s tenure, serving 18,326 days (52 years, 2 months, 3 days). Before the first session of the 102nd Congress (1991–1993) adjourned, Whitten responded to tributes from dozens of his colleagues. “I believe it is how well you serve and not how long,” he observed. John Dingell, Jr., of Michigan was one Member who gave tribute to Whitten that day. Recalling his first meeting with the dean of the House while serving as a Page in the 1940s, Dingell noted that Whitten’s service was “not only one which ranks high in terms of time, but which ranks extraordinarily high in terms of quality.”
Dingell would go on to break Whitten’s House service record on February 11, 2009. And on June 7, 2013, Representative John Dingell, Jr., will become the longest serving Member in either chamber, surpassing the service record of Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia.
Sources: Washington Post, September 11, 1960; New York Times, November 16, 1964; Chicago Tribune, December 26, 1964; Henry Z. Scheele, “Vinson, Carl,” American National Biography 22 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999): 377–379; Politics in America, 1994 (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly Inc., 1993): 843–846; Congressional Record, House, 102nd Cong., 1st sess. (5 November 1991): 30010–30023.