Tim Peterson, Associate Editor
Ideology: Left-Independent | Writing from: New York
This is the first in series of posts discussing the role of politicians.
It happens when you leave a newspaper in the sun. Not only does the page yellow and starch, it also loses relevance. It ages away. So too Congress.
If political turnover were a rollercoaster, we’re currently clacketing up to the ‘Oh, shit!’ apex. As with other workplaces overrun with the elderly—namely schools and hospitals—Congress is overlong in the tooth. According to the Congressional Research Service:
The average age of Members of both Houses of Congress at the beginning of the 111th Congress was 58.2 years; of Members of the House, 57.2 years; and of Senators, 63.1 years.
According to U.S. Census Bureau estimates, 64% of the America’s population constitutionally eligible to join Congress are between 25 and 54 years old. The median age of the entire U.S. population is 36.8 years old. Yet much of our Congress is more worried about their hair turning blue than gray.
Now, I understand the need for experienced members of Congress. It would be foolhardy to send a 28-year-old to the Capitol whose sole qualifications are a Bachelor’s degree, an agile mind and starry eyes. Representatives and Senators with years spent on Capitol Hill are more capable of passing legislation than someone fresh out of their salad days, but the newly elected are more likely to introduce politically inconvenient but morally imperative legislation, as we’ve seen with Senator Al Franken (D-MN). By comparison, I find it foolhardy to continue to send doddering career politicians who serve as watered down bastions of democracy, some even as proxies of their staff. According to the Daily Caller’s Jonathan Strong, the former Senator from Vermont, Jim Jeffords, came to exemplify the latter:
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.
It’s one thing to caricature politicians as senile citizens playing mahjong and sipping Arnold Palmers on the porch while yelling at the rest of us to get off their lawns. It’s another for the elder statesman to be described as Strong describes “the longest-serving House member in history,” 83-year-old Representative John Dingell (D-MI):
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…. [W]orking in Congress is akin to an “assisted living community” these days — they enjoy plenty of company.
As Strong writes, for many members of Congress their elected office is their career. They care to keep their jobs more than, one fears, they care to do their jobs. Supporting evidence can be found in those not seeking re-election this year. Politico’s Jeanne Cummings quotes the political scientist Ross Baker as saying of these lame ducks, “They are more concerned about what is going to be written on the tombstones.”
Indeed, Cummings cites Senators Chris Dodd (D-CT) and George LeMieux (R-FL) not going gently into the night. Dodd has taken up the mantle of financial regulation reform, and, writes Cummings, “LeMieux said his top priority in his short 16 months in office is to raise awareness about the sorry shape of the national budget.”
But those who remain are not ready to tilt at windmills. They claim to be incrementalists even though their functions are reactionary; they deign to preserve rather than progress, even to the point when that which they are preserving is themselves, to our detriment.
Quoting a saying from the late Senator Richard Russell, Senator Bob Bennett (R-UT)—since defeated in his reelection bid—told Jennifer Senior in a recent New York article, “‘The Senate allows you two years as a statesman, two years as a politician, and two years as a demagogue.’ … And that’s actually changed. You’re now a demagogue the full six years.”
We’ve seen this happen in the cases of Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Arlen Specter (D-PA) who have been chasing votes like a backyard dog after a crow, with Specter found wanting and McCain still trying to claw over the dang fence.
There’s a reason these career politicians have fallen out of favor: They are no longer in line with their constituents.
The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza has a good post documenting the chase.
Candidate after candidate — from Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison to Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson to Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter — have watched as their appeals to electability (head) have been drubbed by their opponents’ emphasis on core party principles (heart).
As I see it, good. While the representative democracy system ensures that candidates slant center in order to appeal to the widest possible swath of voters, I think candidates should also hold fast to a particular grouping, compromise as well as conviction. The strength of this group affiliation—its influence as well as it numbers—will then decide the candidate’s electability. As election seasons begin to overlap each other with multi-year campaigns and primary candidates being evaluated based on the general election chances, small-d democratic potency wanes.
A representative democracy requires that elected officials serve at the citizens’ discretion but also in their interests. This compact requires them to lead as well as follow, to act as well as react, to risk reelection in favor of proper representation. The converse is reprehensible.