Flight of the greybeards

imagesFor the third successive round of elections, 2014 is going to see some older, more experienced and – some would say – wiser members leaving the Senate. The attrition of experience is most dramatic in Hawaii. Daniel Akaka, the State’s junior senator, had served since 1990 until his retirement at the election in November 2012. His successor achieved, on day one of her term, an honor that had eluded him until after his retirement. She became the state’s senior senator, as Daniel Inouye, who had served since 1963, died in December 2012. (Akaka, of course, was senior senator for a few weeks in the lame duck congress).

It is not known how much the average experience of the House or Senate is likely to dip next time. Some experienced senators may yet announce retirement. Others might be defeated in primaries – as Richard Lugar was in 2012 and Frank Lautenberg probably would have been next year, had he not decided to retire. Others may be defeated in the general election, as the dreadful Ted Stevens was in Alaska in 2008. 

Experience is, on the whole, a good thing. But, as Lord Acton said, power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Not all long serving senators leave under the sort of cloud that dominated the end of Stevens’s career. He was convicted of corruption just days before losing at the polls. The conviction was later overturned due to gross prosecutorial misconduct, but Stevens, even if not formally guilty of corruption, was a politician of the worst sort. He used his seniority in the Senate to divert taxpayers’ money to his favorite projects in Alaska. 

It seems certain that the total experience of the Senate – which peaked at 1300 years a decade ago – will fall below 1,000 years for the first time since 1985. Of course, that is only ten years per senator, not a huge length of service, considering a single term is six years. But in how many other organizations would you see people serving an average of ten years in the same job? 

Of course, it is arguable that as one serves through a third, fourth, or subsequent term in the senate, the nature of the job changes. More than the House, the senate reveres seniority. First term senators simply lack the clout to get legislation adopted. They are unlikely to serve on influential committees, and certainly not in positions of power. Even Senator Roy Blunt, who had briefly served as Majority Leader during his time in the House, has no committee chairmanships in the Senate. His seniority did not carry over.

But seniority is relative. If senators were to serve a maximum of two terms, then people would achieve seniority more quickly. It should not take 12 years or more in the Senate before someone can be trusted to chair a committee. 

A faster turnover is likely to be good for the senate. More people with experience in business or the voluntary sector would strengthen the body. Even if many senators have spent much of their career in other branches of government – as governors or congressmen, for example – this greater breadth of experience would be a strength. 

Term limits legislation for Congress is unconstitutional. The Constitution determines who is eligible to seek election. But for parties and voters to achieve faster turnover at the ballot box is, on balance, to be welcomed.

Quentin Langley is a Senior Lecturer in Marketing at the University of Bedfordshire Business School as well as a freelance columnist published in the UK and all parts of the US. He blogs on social media and crisis communications at brandjacknews.com


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