Retirement age: the painful realities of the oldest Congress in history

In terms of old geezers, this Congress is setting all kinds of records.

In February 2009, 83-year-old Rep. John Dingell, Michigan Democrat, became the longest-serving House member in history. In November, 92-year-old Sen. Robert Byrd, West Virginia Democrat, became the longest-serving member of Congress, period. And it’s not just those two. This is the oldest Congress measured by its average age since records have been kept.

Byrd won’t retire until his “old body just gives out and drops!” That’s what he said in 2007, trying to ward off the vultures circling his appropriations committee chairmanship. He has since relinquished the gavel to 85-year-old Sen. Daniel Inouye, Hawaii Democrat.

Byrd hasn’t dropped yet, but his age is clearly catching up with him. He has missed the most votes, 42 percent, of any sitting senator this Congress, going away for long spells in the hospital for “infections” and other ailments. And his public speeches have become the laughing stock of Senate aides, who flock to televisions whenever he appears, calling it “Byrd watching.”

Dingell, despite recently announcing he will seek reelection, does not look well, either. At a recent press conference announcing an environmental bill, Dingell struggled to stand up from his seat. After ditching his crutches to grip the lectern, he mumbled unintelligibly for five minutes as colleagues looked on uncomfortably. He gets around the Capitol on a motorized scooter. (Others, who have met with him recently, say he is doing well).

Luckily for Byrd and Dingell, working in Congress is akin to an “assisted living community” these days — they enjoy plenty of company.

For some lawmakers, who stay vigorous and mentally sharp despite their age, it’s a tribute to their strength and fortitude. Take the oldest House member by age, Rep. Ralph Hall, 87. Aides say he is mentally quick and, what’s more, still funny. Appropriations Chairman Inouye may take forever to say things, but what comes out tends to make sense.

Others aren’t so sharp, which can be a sensitive issue.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, Byrd’s fellow West Virginia Democrat, showed just how touchy, when, asked by The Daily Caller if Byrd’s influence had waned in the last few years, he made a public spectacle of the question.

“This guy’s a real friend!” he said, gesturing to Sen. Claire McCaskill. “Claire, I just got asked such a good question I had to turn to you,” he said, repeating the question. She demurred: “No one knows Sen. Byrd like you know Sen. Byrd!”

Rockefeller turned and, a new edge in his voice, said “he’s fine. And in West Virginia he’s real fine.”