Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Taking Over And Succeeding

One by one, the old figures of the U.S. senate are being replaced this year. Ted Kennedy died. Chris Dodd has decided not to run again, as have Jim Bunning, Kit Bond, Byron Dorgan, George Voinovich and Roland Burris. Robert Bennett was denied renomination by his own party. Arlen Specter is likely to lose the Democratic primary in Pennsylvania, after he switched parties. Nonagenerian Robert Byrd is still in office, but barely, probably sleeping much more than he is awake, and has to be wheeled into the senate chambers when there is a close vote. Majority leader Harry Reid seems headed for certain loss in November. Barbara Boxer may lose her seat.

All of them will be replaced by younger men and women, and the country will be the better for it. Conventional arguments about seniority and experience, once seemingly sensible arguments for keeping old senators in office, now are pathetically empty rationales. Jesse Helms and Strom Thurmond were political parodies at the end, no matter how one felt about their earlier careers. Outstanding senators now past their prime are not immune from this self-indulgence. Richard Lugar, Barbara Mikulski, Daniel Inuoye, Jay Rockefeller are among these. Others such as Daniel Akaka, Frank Lautenberg, Jeff Bingaman and Herb Kohl, did not ever make much difference in the senate, and hopefully will be retired soon.

The list above includes Republican and Democrats, and those who have held on too long in the past is also bipartisan. This is not about politics; it is about judgment and able public service.

A few older senators still have lots of impact and political energy. These include Joe Lieberman, Lamar Alexander, John McCain, Orrin Hatch and Diane Feinstein. Chuck Grassley, Thad Cochran and Richard Shelby still make some difference. They are the exceptions that prove the rule. My point is not that age and experience are in any way bad, but that in terms of service in the U.S. senate, they can become an obstacle to that body working well. I don’t know about specific term limits, but I don’t think anyone should serve in the same elective office too long.

As a relatively senior person myself, who expects and wants to be active as long as possible, and long past any conventional dates, I wish for all of the above senators to continue to have long and productive lives. But the U.S. senate is a vital American institution, and needs, especially in this dangerous economic and political time, new blood, fresh thinking and youthful imagination.

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