How Old Is Too Old, Senator?

[ Posted Tuesday, September 22nd, 2009 – 16:16 UTC ]

Senator Robert Byrd reportedly visited the hospital today. The cause of his visit wouldn't normally be considered alarming, but the man is 91 years old, so any such visit is bound to be seen as news. My reaction to this announcement was to check the West Virginia legal code for their rules of senatorial succession. Thankfully for Democrats, the state has a Democratic governor who has the power to appoint a replacement, should Byrd not complete his term.

West Virginia's governor, should Byrd's seat become empty, would name a successor right away, to avoid a prolonged vacancy. The interim senator, in Byrd's case, would serve until the next election cycle. Byrd just got re-elected in 2008, so he won't be up for re-election until 2014. Any interim senator would have to face the voters in either the 2010 or 2012 election cycle, depending on when the appointment was made. But if Byrd does make it to the 2014 election, he will be a few weeks shy of his 97th birthday on election day.

Byrd is already the longest-serving senator in United States history. He is the first to have served in the Senate for over a half-century. He broke the "longest-serving" record of Strom Thurmond (who has a still-standing longevity record of his own, as the only person to ever reach the age of 100 while a sitting senator). Thurmond finally declined to run for re-election (at age 100), and died six months after leaving office.

The Senate, to be blunt, is the "oldest" of the "old-boys" clubs. Senators regularly get re-elected just like clockwork. As time goes by, they become (in essence) "Senators-For-Life." Some senators do step down and actually retire from the job, but they are noted as exceptions, rather than the general rule.

Maybe the term limits movement had a point. Maybe there should be some sort of mandatory retirement age in the Senate. The only problem (with both of those ideas) is they would require a constitutional amendment -- no easy thing to do.

Now, I'm not on a vendetta against Byrd personally, here. Byrd delighted the anti-war folks by actually standing up and giving voice against Bush's rush to war with Iraq. He bravely took a stand which was not popular at the time, and was unmoving in his opposition to the entire idea. He is to be commended for doing so, and West Virginia voters love him so much that they returned him to office last year.

But should they have? Should he have even run? At what point do a senator's constituents become ill-served by an officeholder who is simply too old or infirm to hold office?

At least in West Virginia, the succession process is smooth enough that if Byrd falters he can quickly be replaced by a reliable Democrat in the Senate, so there won't be an empty seat during a crucial issue. Massachusetts is finding out the hard way that when rules are changed for purely partisan reasons, sometimes they have to be changed back -- after the fact -- when unforeseen situations occur. Even if such rule-changing has to happen "in the middle of the game."

In third place on the longest-serving-senator list, after Byrd and Thurmond, was Teddy Kennedy. But Kennedy died fairly young, at least in comparison, at age 77. If Kennedy had lasted until the age Byrd is now, he would have served in the Senate for an astounding 60 years. If he had lasted as long as Thurmond, he could have set the record at an unbelievable 70 years. Isn't that just a little too long for any one man to hold such a powerful office?

At least West Virginia won't have to go through the embarrassing ex post facto partisan scramble to change their election laws that Massachusetts finds itself trapped in. But that is due only to the fact that the sitting West Virginian governor is currently a Democrat. America set up a patchwork quilt of election laws from the very beginning (federal elections are overseen by each state, and each state is pretty much free to do as it chooses as to how it runs those elections). And we pay the price for this patchwork on occasion (see: Rod Blagojevich and Roland Burris).

Until someone comes up with the perfect solution for succession rules (not likely any time soon), we have to live with the rules we've got (unless you live in Massachusetts, of course). But the real controlling factor in all of this is the voters themselves. Until and unless voters start turning beloved incumbents down for the simple reason "he's too old," then the Senate will continue to have more than a few doddering denizens, who have truly hung on long past when they should have (for the good of their state) taken a curtain call.


-- Chris Weigant


13 Comments on “How Old Is Too Old, Senator?”

  1. [1] 
    Michale wrote:

    I am really somewhat gabberflasted at the "take in stride" attitude that many have towards the blatant hypocritically partisan agenda with what is going on in Massachusetts..

    One really must wonder how low Democrats are willing to stoop to promote their own agenda...

    Postulate a scenario years down the road when MA again has a Republican Governor and faced with the possibility of losing another Senator.

    Will Democrats change the law BACK again to suit their own agenda, simply because they can??


  2. [2] 
    Michale wrote:

    Perhaps a BETTER question is....

    How would Democrats react if Republicans tried this P.O.S. tactic??


  3. [3] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    Michale -

    Hey, c'mon, some of us have been pointing the fact out that what Mass. is doing is purely partisan and unfair -- even though it benefits Dems.

    Sorry to pat myself on the back, but I've been against this ever since I first heard about it (when Teddy's letter was leaked to the media). You are entirely correct, if the tables were turned, Dems would doubtlessly be yelling "foul!"


  4. [4] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    I've never been one for term limits - the voters are smart enough to limit the terms when they need limiting. Ahem. any event, y'all should be darn thankful you've got a presidential system and not a parliamentary one where the senators are appointed and the senate is the quintessential old boys club.

  5. [5] 
    Michale wrote:



    Credit where credit is due.. You have pointed out right from the get go how utterly partisan and un-american Democrats in MA are being...

    I am just surprised that Joe Q Public ain't up in arms about this...

    This is right up there with the GOP's "nullification" and the Dems "reconciliation" as far as doing an end-run around democracy is concerned..


  6. [6] 
    Osborne Ink wrote:

    Chris, food for thought: Byrd is an opponent of the public option.

  7. [7] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    Michale -

    Actually, reconciliation is a return to the original intent of the founders. What is more democratic (small-d) than majority rules?

    Please show me where in the Constitution it says anything about a filibuster (hint: don't waste your time).

    But I do agree on one level -- all of these things (filibusters included with reconciliation, nullification, and the MA situation) I lump into a bag labeled "political gamesmanship".

    Osborne Ink -

    Hmmm... wonder who the gov. would name instead? WV is a heavy-duty union (coal miners) state. I was thinking, for both MA and WV (should it become necessary), name a freakin' nurse to sit there and vote on healthcare reform. That's what I'd like to see, personally, although at this point my money is on Dukakis in MA for the temp. appt.


  8. [8] 
    Dorkfish wrote:

    I am one that supports term limits for the Congress and the Senate. It would change the way our elected officials approach their jobs. I don't agree with Elizabeth that voters will "limit" the terms when they need limiting. Cash wins elections and incumbents almost always have the cash advantage. The longer they are in office, the greater the cash advantage.

    At least at with age comes wisdom, Byrd's opposition to the public option is a case in point.

  9. [9] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:


    Elizabeth was being a bit sarcastic, you know.

  10. [10] 
    Dorkfish wrote:

    Thank God.

  11. [11] 
    Michale wrote:

    Actually, reconciliation is a return to the original intent of the founders. What is more democratic (small-d) than majority rules?

    Apparently, Dems didna think so when the Republicans threatened it.. :D

    But I do agree on one level — all of these things (filibusters included with reconciliation, nullification, and the MA situation) I lump into a bag labeled "political gamesmanship".

    I whole-heartedly agree, although I would add the adjective "pathetic" to your "political gamesmanship".... :D

    It's pathetic, regardless of which party uses it. It's a short-circuit to the democratic process, solely imposed for partisan political gain at the expense of the country and it's citizens.


  12. [12] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    yes, the Massachusetts rule change is a pretty blatant case of political games. and yes, it's a generally sucky thing to do. both parties now seem equally unfair when it comes to political games. this is unfortunate, but still better than having one side play clean and the other play dirty. it's like when someone cheated and got away with it while playing against the old oakland raiders; it's shameful, and the ends don't exactly justify the means, but it's still hard to hold back a smirk.

  13. [13] 
    Michale wrote:

    The problem with the acceptance of the, "yea, it's a bad thing, but...." concept is that it makes it easier and easier to make unacceptable conduct, acceptable.


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