Where have all the freshman legislators gone?

Despite the crummy salary, service in the Utah legislature has become a career.

Take a look at the figure below (click to enlarge). For each odd-numbered year (i.e. each year after an election), it shows what percentage of Utah legislators were there for the very first time. I mean “first time” literally. If they previously served in the other chamber, or if they served 20 years ago but decided to come back, they don’t count as a first-timer.

The disappearance of freshmen from the Utah legislature

The pattern is striking. From 1897 into the 1940s or 1950s, you could expect to have at least 40% of legislators attending their first legislative session in any given year. By contrast, we’ve generally seen around 20% first-timers in the past decade.

Let’s be more precise. Between 1897 and 1937, 61% of legislators in any given session were true freshmen (on average) in each legislative session. Even if we exclude the first two decades (when everybody was new), we find a 57% freshman rate between 1917 and 1937.

Between 1981 and 2011, by contrast, only 22% of legislators were freshmen (on average) in any given session. Between 2001 and 2011, the average fell to 19%. Despite the crummy salary, service in the Utah legislature has become a career.

My first thought is that this rise in careerism seems to parallel the rise of one-party Republican electoral dominance. But that can’t be the cause, because the same pattern has occurred in many state legislatures and also in Congress. The table below shows how many freshmen there were in the U.S. House (as a percent) over various periods of time.1

1789-1901 1901-1995 1995-2007 2007-2009
44.0% 23.3% 13.6% 12.4%

If this shift toward careerism had happened only in Congress and in the California legislature, where legislators earn over $100,000 per year, then I might say that the salary and perks were leading elected officials to cling to their jobs. But this shift happened in Utah, too, where salaries stink.

So I’m at a loss. I can’t pin this shift on uncompetitive elections, and I can’t pin it on perks. I’m still puzzling over what may have caused this pronounced shift.

(Post updated: All raw numbers converted to percentages.)

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About Adam Brown

Adam Brown is an assistant professor of political science at Brigham Young University and a research fellow with the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy. You can learn more about him at his website.
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5 Responses to Where have all the freshman legislators gone?

  1. Daniel B. says:

    Perhaps the rise of the administrative state? With the complexity of government increasing with the multiplication of governmental agencies, regulations, laws, etc, etc, etc., government has become a task that is not only more difficult, but requiring more expertise. Correspondingly, as legislators begin to understand it, acquire the knowledge to be a player in a more complex system, I would speculate that there are a certain amount of intangible benefits to being a legislator, whether it’s prestige or satisfaction at a job that makes a difference in the community.


    • Adam Brown says:

      That’s what Nelson Polsby guessed back in 1968 when he published an article about the rising careerism (and “institutionalization” more generally) of Congress. He said society is getting more complex, so governance is too, so we’d expect a more institutionalized Congress. That’s basically what you’re saying, and it makes sense.

      Of course, part of why Congress’s job has gotten bigger is that since 1900 there has been a large shift in responsibility from the states to Congress. That might lead us to expect Congress to grow more careerist even as the states move in the opposite direction, but that hasn’t happened.

      • Daniel B says:

        Did you see the article in The Atlantic on the filibuster? While not directly related, it does evaluate the shift of power from the legislative branch to the executive. An interesting effect, especially as we see power shift. It isn’t really from the states to Congress, though there is some shift there. It’s from the states to the federal government, a disproportionate amount, if we were to extrapolate from the article’s assumptions, to the executive branch of the federal government.

  2. Charles Kimball says:

    One explanation is the toxic environment that exists on the hill. Citizens appear apathetic; the majority party does little in the way actually governing instead opting to solidify their power base while the minority party would rather be a cause than offer a true alternative in the way of policies and programs. Careerism and consumption, the new American social mandate.

    • Adam Brown says:

      That explanation only works if citizen apathy and self-interest rose over time even as turnover fell. Despite a popular tendency to view the past as somehow rosier, we’ve had research for decades showing that citizens aren’t engaged and that politicians look out for themselves. Those variables are constant over time, so they can’t easily explain a change over time in careerism.

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