ASSOCIATED PRESS / JULY 2005
Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, speaks at a news conference on Capitol Hill. At 82, Inouye is four days older than Hawaii's other Democratic senator, the venerable Daniel Akaka.
Top-ranking Dems show real seniority
The average age of incoming Democratic House committee leaders is 67
WASHINGTON » Forget all that talk about 40 being the new 30. Democratic members of Congress seem intent on demonstrating that 80 is the new 70 -- or perhaps even 60.
The senior Democrats ready to take power when the new Congress comes to order in January are nothing if not, well, senior.
Eighty-nine-year-old Robert Byrd of West Virginia, the once and future head of the Senate Appropriations Committee, has been in office longer than the life span of eight of his fellow senators.
Eighty-year-old Michigan Rep. John Dingell, the incoming chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, first began hanging around Capitol Hill in the 1930s, when he worked as a House page. He recently had hip surgery -- not because his hip wore out, but because his replacement hip needed a tuneup after more than 20 years in use.
"Presidents come and presidents go," former President Clinton intoned last year. "John Dingell goes on forever."
Herb Kohl, the future chairman of the Special Committee on Aging, is himself aging. But at 71, the Wisconsin senator still has 19 Senate colleagues who have his birthdate beat.
The next chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, 82-year-old Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, was old enough to shake a teenage fist at the invading planes that attacked Pearl Harbor. His fellow Hawaii senator, Daniel Akaka, who will take the helm of the Veterans' Affairs Committee, is a mere four days younger.
It is not exactly a case of the torch being passed to an older generation -- the outgoing Republican committee leaders are a seasoned lot, too.
But the average age of the incoming Democratic House committee leaders is 67, six years older than the Republicans they are replacing. The trend is the same, albeit less pronounced, in the Senate, where the average age of Democratic chairmen will be about 68.5, a year older than the GOP leaders who are losing their majority status.
These Democrats, so long stuck in the minority, are eagerly taking power at a time in their lives that is well past the average age of Americans starting to draw Social Security benefits -- 64.
Hip and knee replacements aside, most are out to show they still are hip.
Dingell got an iPod Nano for his 80th birthday; now he can listen to the podcasts he has been recording.
Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy, who will be chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee at 74, walks with a bit of a stoop, but still hits tennis balls to his Portuguese water dogs, Sunny and Splash, in the park. He said recently: "I sort of laugh and say I'm going to stay in the Senate until I get the hang of it."
Rep. Charles Rangel of New York, set to take the helm of the Ways and Means Committee at 76, joked this year that the Democrats' return to power could add 30 years to his life.
When Vice President Dick Cheney got into a tiff with Rangel last year and suggested that the New York Democrat was getting old and might be "losing it," Rangel retorted, "He should look so good at 75."
Byrd, who slowly navigates the Capitol with two canes, successfully fended off his opponent's questions about his age in the November elections to win a six-year term that would end when he is 95. "Age does not affect me except in my legs," he said. "And I've got a head up here that hasn't changed one iota in the last 25 years."
Overall, members of Congress are a healthier and more robust lot than were legislators of yore, when deaths in office were common. In the Senate, for example, 130 senators died in office from 1900 through 1949, compared with 49 in the next 50 years.
Health care is better, life expectancy is rising, and Washington is a more livable town than in the years before air conditioning and other improvements, especially for legislators who get VIP treatment.
Well into the 20th century, "Washington was a pretty miserable place," said political scientist Steven Smith of Washington University in St. Louis. "One's age took a greater toll in those days."
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a 75-year-old now has an average life expectancy of 11.5 years, and an 85-year-old can hope for an additional 6.5 years.
Even so, the recent brain hemorrhage suffered by South Dakota Sen. Tim Johnson, who turns 60 on Thursday and is one of the youngest of the Senate's incoming Democratic chairmen, was a stark reminder that infirmity can have consequences that extend beyond one lawmaker's health.
With Democrats holding a slim 51-49 majority in the Senate, if even one Democratic seat were to shift to a Republican replacement, the chamber would be evenly split. Cheney then would hold the tiebreaking vote.
James Thurber, an American University political scientist, said there are pros and cons attached to the advanced age of some of the committee chairmen. Their wealth of experience and knowledge of issues is invaluable, he said, and strong staff members can make up for any physical limitations that may come with age.
Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, at 70 considering a presidential bid, likes to make the case for experience by telling skeptics, "I'm older than dirt, more scars than Frankenstein, but I learned a few things along the way."
Akaka, whose political opponent, Ed Case, unsuccessfully urged voters this fall to "catch a new wave," said his age is "a huge plus." He said slower speech may be "a sign of thoughtfulness and care."
But Thurber said that when senior legislators do not budge, it can create a bottleneck that keeps younger members from moving up and "cuts off new ideas."
Thurber cautioned that there could be some "pushback" by younger members next year if older legislators who remember the old days try to return to a time when committees were run like fiefdoms managed by barons exercising absolute power. That changed after Republicans took charge in 1994; they centralized power and reduced the clout of committee leaders.
"The barons were always older, they always got a little crotchety and they always were a little arrogant," Thurber recalled. "So it was a very different place."
Come January? Maybe what's old will be new again.