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House of Nerds

The smartest member of Congress is retiring. Who inherits his title?

This winter has been a season of curtain calls for some of the most prominent Democrats in the House of Representatives. Forty-year House veteran George Miller announced his retirement in January, followed a few weeks later by fellow Californian Henry Waxman and John Dingell, the longest serving member in history. All three have chaired major committees, and it was clear that none could see relief coming from the Republican majority’s vise grip over the body in this year’s elections.

Last week, the parting glass was lifted by eight-term Representative Rush Holt, another progressive favorite. Holt, a major voice on energy and the environment from New Jersey’s mostly well-heeled suburbs, attempted to parachute from the 113th Congress into the Senate last year following the death of Frank Lautenberg, but ultimately lost out to Cory Booker. With his exit, he becomes the latest eloquent, influential Democratic player to pass from an increasingly dysfunctional lower chamber.

His departure isn’t just a loss to the House’s blue faction however: Among 435 Democrats and Republicans, Holt may well have been the most intelligent. He holds a PhD in nuclear physics, secured a patent for something called a “non-convecting solar pond” and served for nearly a decade as the Assistant Director of the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory. His smarts were put to the test when he famously bested the eerily-dominant supercomputer Watson in a round of Jeopardy!, upholding the honor of humanity where five other members of Congress—not to mention a slate of the show’s ex-champions, including Ken Jennings—had failed.

Holt’s place in his caucus is probably secure, given the strong likelihood that his left-leaning district will elect a Democrat to succeed him. The vaunted status of Brainiest Representative is a more dubious proposition, however. After the congressional shenanigans of the last three years, bestowing that title might seem a bit like selecting the world’s best-groomed Scotsman. Still, Americans love a winner, and one intellect must tower above the rest. Let’s take a look at the contenders!

Bill Foster (IL-11)

Associated Press 

With the retirements of Holt and (in 2010) Michigan Republican Vernon Ehlers, Foster is now the last of the once-thriving troika of House physicists. The Harvard PhD helped design giant particle accelerators at the Department of Energy’s Fermilab—this after co-founding a basement startup at 19 that later grew into a worldwide electronic lighting concern. His campaign website listed 31 endorsements from Nobel Prize winners (take it with a small grain of salt, though; one was Barack Obama).

Terri Sewell (AL-07)

Congressional website

A daughter of Alabama’s Black Belt, Sewell is the candidate on our list who set the most precedents along the way. She was the first black valedictorian at Selma High School, the first black female partner at her distinguished Birmingham law firm, and the first black woman elected to the Alabama delegation. She also helped elect the first black members of Britain’s parliament as a student at Oxford University, where she received a master’s with first-class honors. Completing her education with a law degree from Harvard, Sewell set out on the path that led to her election to Congress in 2010, where she was elected Freshman Class President and chosen to serve as Chief Deputy Whip in just her second term.

Tom Cole (OK-04) 

Associated Press

Cole might get my vote. The fifth-generation Oklahoman is perennially lauded for his tactical sharpness, even drawing plaudits from White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer, who dubbed him the “politically smartest GOPer in the House.” The electoral savvy he honed in his home state as an ex-pollster and consultant has served him well in public office, where he has been a kind of Republican Cassandra inveighing against legislative hardball like the obstruction of Hurricane Sandy relief packages. He can boast his share of book learnin’ too, having picked up a master’s degree from Yale and a PhD in British history from the University of Oklahoma, as well as obtaining prestigious Watson and Fulbright Fellowships.

Cole is a dream candidate for Speaker of the House (once the present Speaker either retires or is found face-down with Eric Cantor’s letter opener sticking out of his back), and this New York Times interview, a master class in political pragmatism that darts between candor and evasion, shows why.

Thomas Massie (KY-04)

Associated Press

With the current state of partisan polarization in the House, this list was bound to include a firebrand, and Massie definitely fits that description. A Kentucky Republican elected with the backing of the Paul family, he was one of a handful of breakaway Republican representatives who voted against Boehner for Speaker last year, and later characterized this fall’s shutdown as “not a big deal.” He also sports one of the most intriguing backgrounds of anyone in Washington, notching two engineering degrees from M.I.T.—he won a $30,000 student prize for inventors along the way—and establishing a prosperous company that specializes in touch-based computer modeling.

Perhaps his most interesting project, though, was to build his own timber house from scratch in rural Kentucky: The blog he kept during the six-year process, mixing Thoreuvian ruminations on construction, design, and politics, is genuinely fascinating reading. Massie’s hardcore hard-right beliefs have already attracted a potential primary challenger, but his exploits in the House should be interesting to follow for however long he stays.

Jerry McNerney (CA-09)

Associated Press

When he was elected in 2006, McNerney may have helped set the House record for greatest year-over-year intelligence leap. Partly that’s because the guy he beat, the estimably corrupt Richard Pombo, was nobody’s idea of a genius (when everyone’s already calling you crooked, it’s probably worth it to quit taking money from Jack Abramoff). But the professional mathematician is apparently bright by any measure. A former West Point cadet who left the academy in protest against the Vietnam War, he later completed a PhD at the University of New Mexico and worked as an engineering contractor at Sandia National Laboratories.

In an interview, McNerney  claimed that he’d like to apply his facility with numbers in Congress by “develop[ing] present models to provide us rational tools to use in making difficult and consequential decisions, such as accurately predicting what the societal consequences of ignoring global warming  will be or the likely outcome of applying military options in a variety of different scenarios.” Good luck with that, bro. 

Correction: This article originally misstated the name of Michigan's retiring congressman. His name is John Dingell, not Henry.