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Dingell, Lautenberg and the Problem With D.C.

Dingell, Lautenberg and the Problem With D.C.

By Tom Bevan - June 5, 2013

In sports, some athletes have a tendency to hang on too long, playing past their prime as their skills diminish considerably. In doing so they put themselves at greater risk of injury even as they become more of a burden to their teammates.

But in politics, an even more pernicious force is at work. Some politicians don’t “play past their prime.” They play until they die in office. The question arises: Who is that helping?

Two story lines emerged this week that illustrate the nature of the quandary. On Friday, Michigan Rep. John Dingell will become the longest-serving member of Congress. Ever. This is already being heralded as a “milestone” and an “achievement,” and I suppose it is. But it also symbolizes a good deal of what’s wrong with Washington.

John Dingell was first elected on Dec. 13, 1955. To put that date in perspective, Dwight Eisenhower was in the White House, Rosa Parks had just refused to give up her seat on a bus in Alabama, and “Mr. Sandman,” by a group called the Chordettes, topped the music charts.

Dingell, who turns 87 years old next month, has since then been elected 29 consecutive times, and only twice with less than 60 percent of the vote. If that wasn’t enough, his 1955 victory came in a special election to replace his father, John Sr., who died in office after serving 22 years in the House.

One need not be a term-limit zealot to feel unnerved at the idea that his Michigan district has been in the hands of the Dingell family for 80 straight years. Or to wonder about the Massachusetts Senate seat held by John F. Kennedy and his brother Edward from 1952 until 2009 -- when Teddy died in office.

Yes, John Dingell had to face the voters of his district every two years, as constitutionally required, and they saw fit to return him to office. But they did so in a gerrymandered district where challenging him in a primary would be a ticket to oblivion, and the only factor that really mattered every other November is the “D” beside his name.

Another way to view Dingell's 57-year tenure, which is being treated by the media, pundits and party bigwigs in such a celebratory fashion, is that it is a prime example of the growing disconnect between Washington’s values and those in the rest of the country.

We now have a permanent governing class in our nation’s capital, some of whom have never held a job other than elected office and others, like the Dingells and Kennedys, for whom politics is the family business. (Incidentally, the matriarch of one of those families made news recently with a refreshingly blunt observation. “It’s great country,” Barbara Bush said when asked if her second son, Jeb, should run for president in 2016. “There are a lot of great families, and it's not just four families or whatever. There are other people out there that are very qualified and we've had enough Bushes.”)

No matter how well-intentioned these politicians might be -- and contrary to public perception they’re not all crooks and liars, as I often remind my own father -- they become part of a culture that operates under self-perpetuating priorities. They become insulated from the real world and distanced from those they are supposed to represent.

For many members, particularly those in the House, their overriding concern quickly becomes winning re-election so they can stay in office. The longer they’re in Washington, the worse it gets. Even those who make pledges to leave after two or three terms develop an odd and very selective form of amnesia. Many of those who do manage to step down, either of their own volition or because of the voters’ wishes, immediately begin plotting their own comebacks.

Such was the case with New Jersey Democratic Sen. Frank Lautenberg. He was an accomplished public servant, a World War II veteran who had made a fortune in the business world. In 1999, at the age of 75 and nearing the end of his third six-year term in the Senate -- and facing no formidable opposition for re-election -- Lautenberg announced he was stepping down. He left office in January 2001.

That retirement lasted exactly one year. In early 2002, he let it be known he was available for an upcoming vacancy. He ran in 2002, and again in 2008, and when he died this week in office, he was 89 years old and had been in declining health for some time. Lautenberg had announced his impending retirement (again) in February of this year, but the real question is why he was still in the Senate at all.

Such examples are increasingly the rule, rather than the exception. Choosing to stand for re-election as nonagenarians, Strom Thurmond of South Carolina and Robert Byrd of West Virginia spent their final terms battling health problems and sleeping through roll call votes. Byrd seemed motivated to stand for re-election a final time in 2006 for the express purpose of breaking Thurmond’s record of being the longest-serving senator in United States history. He succeeded, though it’s hard to see how the people of West Virginia are better off for it.

We will unquestionably be treated to more scenes like this in the future as senators, along with everyone else, live longer and longer thanks to modern technology and medicine.

But just because senators can serve longer doesn’t mean they should. It’s not only a matter of health, and having the physical and mental faculties to perform the job. There’s a legitimate question of whether the “graying of Congress” negatively impacts the crafting of meaningful legislation to address the modern problems of tomorrow. Is it really a coincidence that they keep appropriating money for current federal programs by borrowing from a future generation they won’t be part of?

There is value in having people with experience in Washington, but we’ve ventured too far in that direction, with an entrenched governing class too focused on getting and maintaining power and control. Reasonable term limits might help restore some balance and break a vicious cycle that has contributed to sapping Americans’ trust in government. 

Tom Bevan is the co-founder and Executive Editor of RealClearPolitics and the co-author of Election 2012: A Time for Choosing. Email: tom@realclearpolitics.com, Twitter: @TomBevanRCP

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