IT HARDLY caused a ripple outside Washington's Beltway, but junior members of the House Democratic majority just unloosed harassing fire at the venerable seniority system in Congress. And a good thing it was, too. The mini revolt toppled two powerful, aging committee chairmen and rapped the knuckles of a third.
Glenn M. Anderson of California, chairman of the Public Works Committee, and Frank Annunzio of Illinois, chairman of the House Administration Committee, had all the seniority they needed to retain their committee leadership posts in the new Congress that convenes in January.
But in an organizing session earlier this month, Democratic members in caucus voted to replace both and threw a scare into Rep. Henry B. Gonzales of Texas, chairman of the banking panel.
Aside from normal ambitions among those waiting impatiently to move up, reasons for dissatisfaction with Annunzio and Anderson, at least, apparently boiled down to tensions between younger members who want leaders more media-oriented and outward looking and others who look to older insiders for guidance.
Our point here is not what impact the changes might have on public policy, but simply that this can happen in Congress.
For many years it would not have happened. Seniority ruled with an iron hand.
But after Watergate, in 1975, House Democrats suddenly removed three committee chairmen. In 1985, another was ousted. And now, two others with all the seniority in the world lose out.
Lots of advantages attend seniority when it is compared to other possible standards. It at least suggests familiarity with the business of the committee. Yet seniority should not be an absolute standard.
Nor has it been in recent years, as the record shows, in the House. Most times in most years, seniority is sufficient to keep a committee chairman in power. But occasionally it isn't.
That keeps the process honest. It also speaks well of the procedure in Congress whereby nominations for committee chairmen, normally honoring seniority, remain subject to vote by secret ballot by all rank-and-file members of the party involved. At any of these review times, a chairman can be dumped.
So there is a periodic, regular democratic check on leadership and committee chairmanships. That gives each elected House member, and indirectly his or her constituents, a vote in the process.
It's a shame that similarly democratic checks do not occur in Albany when committee chairmen are chosen. They are selected solely by Speaker Mel Miller, a Democrat, in the Assembly and by Majority Leader Ralph Marino, a Republican, in the Senate. Their choices ought to be subject likewise to rank-and-file review in the respective party caucuses.
Were the State Legislature governed by more democratic organizing procedures, as is Congress, rank-and-file legislators would exercise more authority over its decisions -- and their constituents would have a more active voice.
New York's elected legislators would sit around less -- and represent more.