ROBERT MICHEL, the House minority leader, who announced this week that he'll retire at the end of this term, is a perfect example of what conservative Republicans like him say is wrong with Congress. He's been around a lo-o-o-ng time.
He was elected to the House of Representatives in 1956, took the oath of office on Jan. 3, 1957. So here's a quiz for you: When he retires on Jan. 4, 1995, how long will he have served in the House?
The answer is 45 years! Trick question! For seven years before he was elected to the House, he was the administrative assistant to the representative from the same Illinois district, the Red-scare demagogue Harold Velde.
Michel was also in the Army for three-plus years, so he has spent over 48 of his 70 years nourished by the public milk bottle -- 51 if you count the GI Bill.
Illinois sends 'em there to stay. Sid Yates, a Democrat, was elected in 1948 and been in the House ever since, except for two years he had to sit out when he ran for the Senate and lost.
Dan Rostenkowski, also a Democrat, has been in the House since January 1959. He is expected to continue serving in the House for awhile. Or some other federal institution.
Then there was Leslie Arends, a Republican, who spent 40 years in the House, 1935-1975. He was assistant Republican leader for 32 of those years.
And then there was Joe Cannon, the survivingest of all Republican representatives. He served 46 years from 1873 to 1923. He was twice beaten in that period and sat out two terms, otherwise he'd have made it an even 50 years. Cannon was speaker for six years.
Another long-lived Republican, Joseph Martin of Massachusetts, was speaker, too. Martin served from 1925 to 1967, losing finally in a primary. He was the last Republican speaker, 1953-1954.
Massachusetts is not too shabby in the longevity department. John McCormack, who was speaker from 1962-1971, served in the House 43 years.
He followed Sam Rayburn of Texas, who served in the House 48 years and was speaker for 17. Being speaker keeps you young. Or at least feeling young. If Bob Michel was speaker instead of minority leader, he wouldn't be quitting.
Michel's half century on the public payroll in 70 years of life is nothing. Rep. John D. Dingell Jr. of Michigan, who is only 67, has been sucking on that bottle for 55 years. He was a congressional page from 1938 to 1943, in the Army till '46, GI Bill (in Washington) till '52, assistant to a judge in '52 and '53, assistant to a prosecutor in '54 and '55, then elected to fill a vacancy in the House in 1955, where he's been ever since.
The vacancy was caused by the death of John D. Dingell Sr. He held the seat from 1933 till 1955. So a John D. Dingell has represented this Michigan district for over 60 years.