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.”

  • qofdisks

    The lack of respect for elders is pathological in our culture. You can bet that it is a Chinese value to honer their elders and they are kicking our asses.

  • steve gibson

    All of the above?

  • steve gibson

    As a life long Republican now in my 60’s I really hope our party is smart and gets younger. We need to get tomorrows leaders on board and known to the public.Let’s face it Bob Bennett was not going to be a future leader, but Mike Lee could be.It is a picture like this that let’s you know why congress acts like FDR is president, Byrd probably thinks he still is.

  • bill_pilgrim

    ok, it was close to 15yrs ago i saw robert byrd on larry king drooling and dropping the N word. i think it’s time to retire and go back to doing civil war reenactments….”sorry general lee, but i think i pooped myself”

  • patrick

    The lady on Senator Byrd’s left is thinking:
    A. Is there a cliff I can throw this racist POS over?
    B. I hope its the white woman’s turn to change his diaper
    C. Oh God its sponge bath day again

    • gbenton

      Classic :)

    • anniebanannie

      “Rather I should die a thousand times, and see Old Glory trampled in the dirt never to rise again, than to see this beloved land of ours become degraded by race mongrels, a throwback to the blackest specimen from the wilds.” — Former Klansman and current US Senator Robert Byrd

      Well, Old Man Byrd, isn’t life a b**ch when you have to have one of those “mongrels” hold your arm, or you’re going to fall on your ancient butt?

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  • ojfl

    Time to retire some of these senior citizens. They, and we, deserve a break.

  • spr8er

    It lies totally in the voters hands,personaly i’d never cast a vote for some of these politicians that are way past their productive years.The long held practice of not holding people accountable for their performance,or lack there of,is responsible for most of our problems with government.We can hold these people in high esteem for their service,but it helps neither them nor us to elect someone who cannot perform out of some misguided sense of gratitude.

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