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

Jonathan Strong Jonathan Strong, 27, is a reporter for the Daily Caller covering Congress. Previously, he was a reporter for Inside EPA where he wrote about environmental regulation in great detail, and before that a staffer for Rep. Dan Lungren (R-CA). Strong graduated from Wheaton College (IL) with a degree in political science in 2006. He is a huge fan of and season ticket holder to the Washington Capitals hockey team. Strong and his wife reside in Arlington.
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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.”

Besides Byrd, perhaps the quintessential example of a dinosaur in office was Strom Thurmond, South Carolina Republican, who retired at age 100. One Washington insider recalls walking into a room to find Thurmond in deep conversation – with the insider’s 1-year-old daughter.

Thurmond, who chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee in the 1980s, would come into work fine on some days, incoherent on others, which made the hearings he presided over a crapshoot.

When older members and the large Capitol complex collide, bad things happen. Sen. Jim Jeffords, 72 when he retired, admitted to memory loss and was widely suspected on Capitol Hill to be suffering from Alzheimer’s. He once wandered over to the House of Representatives where, after several minutes, lawmakers told him: wrong chamber.

Similarly, the notoriously unpredictable Sen. Larry Pressler, South Dakota Republican, only 54 when he retired, once mistook a closet for the exit door from a committee hearing room. He emerged minutes later, pretending nothing was wrong.

Besting him in an election in 1998 was Sen. Tim Johnson, then 49. Questions have swirled about Johnson’s competency since he suffered a traumatic brain injury in 2006, but the South Dakota Democrat was able to win re-election in 2008 (without debating his opponent). In public, Johnson rarely departs from a prepared text, even when questioning witnesses at hearings. On the few occasions he takes questions, his answers are meandering.

But Byrd is a special example. He yells “make way for Liberty!” as he is wheeled through Senate hallways. One of his speeches, about animal cruelty, has become an Internet sensation, drawing scores of remixes on YouTube. (In the speech, Byrd repeats his outrage twice, yelling “Barbaric!” Then, 10 seconds later, he yells “Barbaric!” again. He also pauses for over seven seconds in the middle of one sentence, seemingly having forgotten his place).

Even nine years ago Byrd was so old he apparently thought it appropriate to call out “white niggers” in an interview on Fox with the late Tony Snow. Of course, Byrd is also old enough to have recruited members to the Ku Klux Klan in the 1940s, using his KKK affiliation to launch his political career. By 1997, Byrd was warning aspiring young politicians to stay away from the Klan, apparently in the belief the group was still a political force.

Byrd’s office says they “rarely allow” interviews with him – or is it that they rarely allow Byrd to do interviews? Those who’ve seen similar situations from the inside say staffers often protect their bosses more than they want to be protected. Byrd’s legislative director, David McMaster, is said to be in charge.

Among the many questions raised by an aging Congress is the most basic: Can members on the brink – or even in the grip – of senility adequately represent their constituents? At what point must they relinquish all control to a bevy of unelected staffers?

Jeffords, for instance, introduced a liberal global warming bill as one of the last acts of his public life. But a staffer later admitted to local press that the senator’s only involvement in the legislation was to tell aides to “do something” on the issue.

The late Rep. Julia Carson, 69 when she died in office in 2007, made the papers during her struggle with cancer when it was revealed she received assistance from staffers and other members to vote on the House floor. (Proxy voting is a congressional no-no). Staff had inserted a voting card and Carson had pressed the vote button. On another occasion, unable to quickly ascend a step in her wheelchair, she instructed another lawmaker how to cast her vote as she watched.

For some members, struggling to survive much less thrive in public life, one wonders why don’t they retire? Wouldn’t they want to spend a few of their golden years out of the limelight, with family and friends relaxing?

Staffers identify three main reasons. First, their job is their life — they wouldn’t have anything else to do. For many, having outlived family and, in Byrd’s case, not just his wife but his beloved dog, there might not be anyone but staff to spend the time with.

Second, the relentless fawning of aides and others convinces them the world could not go on without their public service.

Third – no lawmaker would admit this directly — is a fear that in relinquishing an active life, mentally and physically, the grim reaper would descend much faster upon them. Retirement, in other words, means death.

In an interview, Sen. Frank Lautenberg, New Jersey Democrat, hit on all three answers. First, he attributed his relatively good health — in the face of ongoing treatment for stomach cancer at 86 he remains active and sharp — to good luck and exercise, noting he skied for 63 years.

“But also there’s something else … You have to go to work. You have to be functioning on a regular basis. I could think of nothing worse than not having things to do that matter to people. And as much as I love to play golf, yuck! I couldn’t imagine” playing golf all the time, he said.

Lautenberg believes his public service remains critical to the human race. “It’s understanding that I have a responsibility to every one of my 10 – 11! — grandchildren. (Got a new one.) I have a responsibility to them. And in some ways, the only way I can satisfy that responsibility is by doing it for every grandchild. Whether it’s the air they breathe, or the violence they face, or the chaos that we see in parts of our society. So I have that responsibility. It’s like answering the call of the fire bell.”

It is true that while they’re still going full steam, older members tend to benefit from their seniority, so they can do more on behalf of the common good.

They can also count on their experience. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, 76, discussing her proposal to regulate dangerous chemicals in plastics, told reporters, “I grew up at a time, you guys won’t believe it, when there weren’t any plastics. When, you know, you had glass, and you had tin, and we did OK believe it or not. We didn’t even have saran wrap.”

One key lobbyist on environmental issues says that older members’ age “is a good thing” because of their seniority until they reach a point until they’re not firing on all cylinders, at which point it quickly becomes a liability, leaving their constituencies vulnerable.

For Byrd, that means West Virginia coal mining is in the cross hairs. The lobbyist says that West Virginia Democrats Rep. Nick Rahall and Sen. Jay Rockefeller don’t have the same juice that Byrd did in his prime.

Specifically, Appalachian coal mining is getting hammered by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which recently released strict new regulations that industry critics fear will severely curtail not just mining but highways and other types of construction.

The EPA is also playing hardball with permits for specific mining projects, like rescinding, for the first time in its history, an environmental permit a previous administration had already issued. That project, the Spruce No. 1 mine in Logan County, WV, would be the largest mountaintop removal mine in the state.

If Byrd were lucid, that “would never happen,” the lobbyist said, instead, EPA would be getting killed in the appropriations process Byrd used to control.

(By contrast, coal interests did well in the House-passed cap-and-trade legislation, largely because of Midwesterners on the House energy committee.)

Rockefeller, who minutes before had been arguing the Gulf Coast oil spill underscores the advantages of coal over oil (“you can’t do America without coal!”) ducked the question when The Daily Caller asked whether he and Rahall are able to pick up the slack for Byrd, saying it’s a “loaded question” and he’s not “primarily a defender of coal.”

As noted above, Rockefeller is sensitive about the issue. Which is smart, because the supposedly endearing clumsiness and incompetence of doddering old congressmen can sometimes turn deadly in campaigns.

That’s what the late Sen. Bill Roth — of Roth IRA fame — found out when he lost his reelection to the relatively youthful Tom Carper, then 53.

Roth’s experience and stature — he was chairman of the powerful finance committee — instantly turned into liability when he collapsed during an interview with a local TV channel.

He also fell at a campaign rally. The campaign blamed the falls on vertigo but a relatively youthful Carper was able to capitalize, winning by 10 points with his slogan, “A senator for our future!”

In the wake of Roth’s television collapse, his home state colleague, Joe Biden, now 67, stuck in the knife: “People think of him more in terms of age and how long he’ll be around,” he said, “He’s done a whole lot less in Delaware than he used to. People notice that.”

Other lawmakers don’t let it ever get to that point. Sen. Kit Bond, 69-year-old Missouri Republican, is retiring this year. He said he wants to go out “on the top of my game.”

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