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An ancient dilemma: Debating aging senators

Are some senators too old? Have they lost the mental acuity and physical stamina needed to fulfill their duties? “That's a big problem,” says Don Ritchie, the Senate historian.
/ Source: NBC News

It’s among the Senate’s built-in dilemmas — a generally unspoken question contemplated by voters and elected officials alike.

Are some senators too old? Have they lost the mental acuity and physical stamina needed to effectively fulfill their duties?

For one senator, age was a contributing factor in his decision to retire in 2010. Having watched former West Virginia Sen. Robert Byrd's health deteriorating during his final years in the Senate, this lawmaker had a hard time envisioning that type of life for himself.

“In the last two years, with the Parkinson’s [disease] and everything, it was sad,” said the retiring senator, who asked for anonymity so that he could speak candidly about the sensitive issue of his colleague's age. “They’d haul him out and he didn't even know he was there … and God, I know that's not what the Senate is about.”

The retiring senator raised the issue of aging, unprompted, when he was asked what circumstances would have convinced him to seek re-election.

“I looked and I said to myself, ‘you can’t do that. You cannot take a chance on losing your ability to operate at 100 percent speed and do your job as a senator,’” he recalled.

(A longtime aide to Byrd responded to the comments, saying that the West Virginia senator was always aware of his presence in the Capitol. The aide added that, while Byrd was not there every day, he was always mentally engaged, even testifying in two hearings in the month before his death.)

Questions of age and effectiveness are almost as old as Congress itself. Doubts were raised in the 1800s about John Quincy Adams when, after being president, he launched a second career as a member of the House.

When Adams, who was in his 70s, proposed a resolution that would have treated the petitions of slaves with the same regard as those of citizens, even his Northern Republican allies balked at the then-radical idea. At least one of his colleagues wondered aloud if Adam’s best intellectual days were behind him.

According to historical documents, Rep. Abijah Mann of New York said of Adams, “The high noontide of life has long since passed with him.” Seemingly embarrassed for the former president, he added that Adams was “far advanced in the autumn of his life.”

Age can influence voters, too. In 1988, when former North Dakota Sen. Quentin Burdick ran for re-election at 80, one poll showed that over a third of eligible voters were concerned about his mental and physical fitness. State leaders wrote to Burdick urging him to retire, saying, “it’s better to leave early than stay too long.” (Burdick won that race but died in the next term.)

“It's a big problem in the Senate,” said Don Ritchie, the Senate historian. “I think you do get senators who outlive their time. And it’s not new.”

'I've watched others stay too long'
Without explicitly mentioning concerns about their mental and physical health, some senators contend that they simply don’t want to overstay their welcome in Washington.

When 71-year-old Republican Sen. Kit Bond announced his retirement he last year, he used humor to make the point. “In 1972, I became Missouri’s youngest governor,” he told the home state crowd. “Ladies and gentlemen, I do not aspire to become Missouri’s oldest senator … I'd like to retire while I'm still at the top of my game.”

Democratic Sen. Byron Dorgan, age 68, was more pointed when asked why he decided not to run again. In addition to already having served 40 years in statewide elective office, he said, “Frankly, I've watched others stay too long.”

“I just didn't want to find myself in a situation where in my mid-70s or at age 80 I was traveling 30 weekends a year” between Washington and North Dakota, he said.

In the Senate’s history, a total of 48 senators have been re-elected at the age of 75 or older. And that number is likely to grow. In 2005, for the first time in history, the average age of a senator reached 60. This year it’s 63.

(South Carolina’s Strom Thurmond, first elected to the Senate in 1954, was the oldest senator ever to win re-election in 1996 at the age of 93.)

The senators who voluntarily addressed the issue said there are many capable, sharp, and active upperclassmen who will run for re-election. The problem isn’t necessarily about their mental and physical ability at the time of the campaign, they noted. It’s more a question of how those abilities can hold up over the next six years of their term in office.

“A lot of people run for re-election when they’re 80 and they feel perfectly fine, they’re in great health,” said historian Ritchie, “but it’s a long time, six years, while you're there. And they get ill [or] something happens.”

For one out of every six U.S. senators in the nation’s history, the worst has happened. About 300 senators have died in office; 35 of those were in the last 50 years.

Magnetic attraction
Another retiring senator who also asked for anonymity said that even when health isn’t a factor, some lawmakers just can’t pry themselves away from the world’s most deliberative body. He says of the Senate, “it’s very hard to get here, very hard … it’s hard to stay here because there are lots electoral challenges … and it’s also hard to leave here.”

This senator recounted a conversation with one of his colleagues — in his mid-70s at the time — who had recently decided to run again. “I guess I'm running just because I never thought of not running,” the septuagenarian said, according to his unnamed colleague.

Ritchie says there’s a magnetic attraction to the Senate that some members can’t shake. And with no term limits and no forced retirement age, they don’t have to — as long as they continue to get re-elected.

“It’s hard to leave because you've got this terrifically energizing job,” Ritchie said. “You've accrued power by the time you get to be older and you're chairing a powerful committee, you're doing work for your state that you never did before … and that's hard to give up.”

Extended seniority does add a unique and valuable dimension to the institution, some of the retiring senators said.

Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., fondly remembers large tables in the senators’ only dining room where the “older guys” would hold court and instruct members about the Senate’s decorum, history, and constitutional role. “[It] was the best tutorial my first 10 or 15 years here than anything I ever went to,” he said.

Dodd said that demands on senators’ time in the modern era have all but eliminated that kind of cross-generational interaction. He worries that younger legislators won’t benefit from the lessons of older mentors as he did. “It’s like children who don’t know the benefit of grandparents,” he said. “The newer members that come in, there’s no memory of it, so it probably doesn’t seem any great loss.”

Sen. Judd Gregg recalls the 1990’s, when Byrd would educate members on the Senate floor, delivering “lecture after lecture” on the rules and history of the chamber. He’s concerned that Byrd’s death will create a void.

“Nobody does that anymore,” Gregg said. “There’s no personality around to be the keeper of the flame of the purpose of the Senate in the constitutional structure, which is too bad.”

But someone will, at least according to Ritchie, the Senate historian.

“There’s always some senator who seems to step forward to play the role of the dean of the Senate,” he said.'s Carrie Dann contributed to this story.