Congress is getting grayer but not ready to retire

June 8, 2006 | By Kathy Keily

Sen. Robert Byrd, who won his first election in 1946 months after President Bush was born, will become the longest-serving member in the Senate’s history on Monday.

It’s a milestone for the West Virginia Democrat, the self-appointed guardian of Senate history and its prerogatives. It’s also emblematic of the graying of the institution in which Byrd has served for more than 47 of his 88 years.

As a body, the Senate is rapidly closing in on qualifying for Medicare: The average age of the 100-member chamber in January 2005, the beginning of the 109th Congress, was 60.4 years old. That’s the oldest it has ever been, according to the Senate Historical Office. The House’s average age is 55, the oldest since at least 1949.

The national median age in 2004 was 36.2.

“I may no longer be able to run a hundred-yard dash,” says Byrd, who walks with the aid of two canes, “but my mind is as sharp as the day I took office.”

While many major corporations require top executives to retire at age 65, the voters who hire the nation’s elected representatives seem to prefer seniority. Of the Senate’s 10 longest-serving members, four are in office now: Byrd and Sens. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., 74; Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, 81; and Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, 82.

In contrast to Strom Thurmond, who was wheelchair-bound and living at Walter Reed Army Hospital before he retired from the Senate in 2003 at the age of 100, the current crop of Senate elder statesmen is remarkably hale.

Byrd played a key role this year in the bipartisan compromise over judicial nominations. This week, he was in the Capitol until nearly 1 a.m. Wednesday working out details of a funding package for Iraq and Hurricane Katrina relief with other members of a House-Senate conference committee.

Thursday, Byrd cast his 17,665th Senate roll call vote, as his West Virginia colleague, Democrat Jay Rockefeller, 68, recuperated from back surgery that has kept him off the Senate floor since mid-March.

Byrd is running for an unprecedented ninth term in the election Nov. 7. His Republican opponent is businessman John Raese, 56. By the time Raese was born, Byrd was on his way to a third term in the U.S. House of Representatives and had served in West Virginia’s House of Delegates and Senate.

Of the 29 senators seeking re-election this year, two are in their 80s; seven are in their 70s; seven are in their 60s; 10 are in their 50s and three are in their 40s.

Senate rules, which give powerful committee posts to the most senior members, tempt many to stay. “With time and age, one’s thinking matures,” Kennedy says. “You know the institution and how to affect the things you care about better. You’re in a position to have a greater impact.”

If Senate youngsters are resentful, they don’t let it show.

“I have made a very conscious effort to pay close attention to the way senators like Ted Stevens or Ted Kennedy or Trent Lott go about their work,” says Sen. John Sununu, R-N.H., at 41 the baby of the Senate. “They know how to get things done.”

Older senators’ lack of interest in retirement reflects a larger trend, says Nancy Thompson of the AARP, the nation’s largest senior citizen lobby. “People are staying in the workforce at older ages in increasing numbers,” she says. “The majority of workers over 50 want to stay in the workforce.”

The relatively advanced age of the U.S. Senate also “reflects in part the very late arrival into positions of leadership of Generation X,” says William Strauss, who researched roles played by America’s generations with Neil Howe.

Strauss says members of Generation X hold only 6% of top elected offices today. He and Howe consider Generation X to be Americans born from 1961 to 1981. That includes five senators.

The Senate could be in for a youthquake, Strauss says. He and Howe have found that eras in which older politicians dominate often give way to periods led by younger generations.

The writers of the Constitution set the minimum age for senators at 30; 25 for House members.

Some say the Senate will always be a place where gray hair rules.

As Senate historian Don Ritchie has pointed out, the word Senate derives from senex, Latin for old.

Or as Byrd himself suggested in a recent speech on the Senate floor, “Presidents come and go. Senators may stay on and on.”


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