The conviction of Senator Ted Stevens has highlighted one of the unspoken problems of the US Senate. The pictures of Sen. Stevens, the longest serving Republican Senator ever, have shown a rather pathetic senior citizen fighting a battle against what appears to be reality. There’s little doubt that he’s way past his prime, which is what the problem is in the Senate as a whole. It’s not that they are all corrupt, it’s that some of them are surprisingly old.
The average (mean) and the median age in the Senate is 64, about the time most people who have a fully loaded 401(k) think about retirement. Since no one has that as an option anymore, the fact that fully 50 of them are older than that and still working is not a surprise. Generationally, this means that about half of the Senate are “Traditionals”, half are “Baby Boomers”, and none are “Gen-X” or younger.
Sen. Ted Stevens, at 84 years old, is not the oldest member. That distinction goes to Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia, who is 91 years old. Every day he sets a new record for the longest Senate term ever, one that will hit 50 years on 3 January. In fact, 8 current Senators weren’t even born when he started serving.
The youngest is Sen. John Sununu of New Hampshire at 44. The fact that he’s only 2 years older than I am makes me wonder where I went wrong, at least until I remember that my father wasn’t a Senator – then it all becomes clear. The oldest woman is Sen. Diane Feinstein, who turned 75 this year.
Is there a problem with having a Senate that is experienced and posses the wisdom of age? Not when I put it like that, of course. But when you see and hear Sen. Stevens on the teevee it’s important to remember that there are 5 Senators who are over the age of 80, meaning that they probably are also a bit past their prime. Another 21 are between 70 and 80 years old. That’s not a problem as long as there is someone in their life to tell them when it’s time to go, but who can tell a Senator what to do? They tend to be driven, egocentric men who enjoy their power. Quit? Not until they’re dead!
Or, in the case of Sen. Stevens, convicted.
This election will, of course, change the outlook of the Senate. There are 35 seats up (more than 33 due to retirement) and 37 if the Obama-Biden ticket prevails. It’s very likely to get quite a bit younger, at least for a few years.
While we’re about to enjoy a major generational change in our President, it’s important to know that the Senate will not change overnight. It’s not supposed to, after all. What remains to be seen is whether this is a force for stabilization or a force that stifles needed change. They don’t all look as pathetic as Sen. Stevens, but there are a few that we might want to keep an eye on.
For giggles, I thought I’d try my first podcast experiment with this (short) piece. Click the “play” arrow below to hear me read this work.