Senate seniority sometimes goes too far

When the Senate Environmental and Public Works Committee met last week to consider the nomination of Gina McCarthy as President Obama's secretary of environmental protection, all eight Republican members were absent but nine of the ten majority Democrats were ready to vote for her.

But they couldn't. A seldom used Senate rule requires the presence of all the majority members of a committee to be present if all of the minority members are absent, even if their absence is a stunt, as it was last week.

Ms. McCarthy is one of the presidential cabinet nominees the minority Senate Republicans intend to block by parliamentary maneuvering and a filibuster, if necessary. The Republicans said they boycotted the meeting because she hadn't "satisfactorily" answered in writing the more than 1,000 questions they had submitted to her.

Ms. McCarthy, with long experience as an environmental aide to governors from both parties in Massachusetts, including Mitt Romney, before she became Connecticut's environmental protection commissioner for Republican Gov. Jodi Rell, would seem to be ideally situated for bipartisan support.

But the Republicans, with an eye toward the 2014 congressional elections, seem intent on blocking every Obama appointee.

The absent committee member, Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., formerly under treatment for cancer and now dealing with other medical issues, has cast only one vote - for the unsuccessful gun control legislation - since February, but he will try to return to Washington Thursday to get Ms. McCarthy's nomination out of committee and to the full Senate, where a filibuster is threatened.

As the Congress continues to function as a 21st century legislative body with 18th century rules, another problem was called to our attention by Sen. Lautenberg's inability to vote, the aging of the Senate.

At 89, Sen. Lautenberg is the Senate's oldest member, followed by the chairman of the environmental committee, Democrat Dianne Feinstein, who is 80. Ten others, including key members like John McCain, Chuck Grassley, Orrin Hatch and Carl Levin, are over 75 and 10 more are 70 or older. In that group are the body's leaders, Harry Reid, 74, and Mitch McConnell, 71. It adds up to 22 percent of the Senate. (Connecticut's senior senator, Richard Blumenthal, is 67 and Chris Murphy, 37, is the body's youngest member. The state's oldest House members are Rosa DeLauro, 71, and John Larson, 65.)

Sen. Lautenberg actually retired from the Senate after three terms at the age of 76 in 2000 - a reasonable point of departure - only to change his mind two years later. He was re-elected in 2008 but mercifully doesn't intend to run for a sixth term. However, associates say he has no intention of stepping down before his term ends in January 2015 because his successor would be appointed by the Republican governor, Chris Christie.

But consider this. In 2008, the voters of the state of New Jersey, in re-electing Sen. Lautenberg, awarded what amounted to a six-year contract to an 84-year-old man, making him one of only 100 men and women doing the nation's business in its senior legislative body.

Then again, South Carolina sent Republican Sen. James Strom Thurmond back into office in his 90s. Finally, at age 99, Sen. Thurmond decided not to seek re-election, leaving the Senate at age 100 in January 2003.

There are really no legislative solutions. Term limits would arguably do the trick, but some good people might lose their jobs prematurely, control of the Senate would be placed in the hands of the permanent Senate staff and all members would be lame ducks after a couple of terms.

The selection of our lawmakers is in the hands of the voters they represent and that is as it should be. But these voters should give more thought to the limitations age inflicts upon even the strongest and most admired leaders. And these leaders should set ego aside and consider their own mortality and ability to serve effectively.

As they have for centuries, the Senate and the Republic can survive without even the best of them.

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