Sunday, December 14, 2008

A gold watch for Robert Byrd?

US Senator Robert Byrd recently received a demotion. The Democrats in Senate leadership thought they were sending one message but were actually sending several and one that concerns us is the issue of fit to serve.

Robert Byrd

Byrd was born November 20, 1917. That makes him 91-years-old. And no one sees a problem with that?

Obviously, Democratic leadership just admitted to some sort of a problem. After starting a whisper campaign against him in the press portraying him as erratic and forcing him to 'voluntarily' resign as chair of the Senate Committee on Appropriations, Democratic leadership has raised the issue of age and the issue of fitness. Not just for Byrd, but for many.

The whisper campaign against Byrd (carried on by Democratic leadership, please note) became so bad that, in June of 2007, he addressed the issue on the floor of the Senate. His remarks (click here for video of his speech) included, "In real life, the lucky ones among us get old. We move down the steep slope to the far right of the bell curve of age. The really lucky ones – and I almost count myself among them – get to be "aged," into their nineties or older, a distinction that I like to think is naturally paired with the wisdom borne of experience. We get white hair. We get wrinkles. We move more slowly. We worry more about falling down because we don't bounce up the way we used to. Our brains are still sharp, but our tongues are slower. We have learned, sometimes the hard way, to think before we speak. I hope, however, that what we have to say is worth the wait. "

He went on to liken himself to Grandma Moses who "did not take up painting until the age of 75. She painted some 1,600 paintings, 250 of which she painted after her 100th birthday." The painter was a private citizen, Byrd holds public office and he holds one office that Harry Reid, Senate Majority Leader, now needs to remove him from.

The fringe radicals (largely Libertarians posing as Democrats) of fall 2008 attempted to repeatedly make the presidential election about Sarah Palin, insisting that Palin was not qualified to be president. First, Palin wasn't running for president. She was in the v.p. slot under John McCain. Second, she was the only nominee in the race (from any party) who had executive experience since she is the sitting governor of Alaska. The fringe radical crew never made the race an issue on, "What if Biden becomes president!" That would be Joe Biden, Barack Obama's running mate. For those who argue "Barack is a young man," his family history is disturbing. Mother dead at 52, father dead at 46 -- both from natural causes. And Barack? He's 47-years-old currently. Due to his family history, his running mate should have been a serious concern. (By contrast the elderly McCain's mother is still alive.) Should have been.

And if Robert Byrd isn't 'sound' enough to chair the Appropriations Committee, he's really not sound enough to sit in the Senate and, most importantly, he's not entitled to be in line for presidential succession. Should anything happen to a president (removed from office, voluntarily stepping down, dying in office), the vice president is elevated. Should both positions

become vacant, the next in line is the US House Speaker (currently Nancy Pelosi). If that position and the two ahead of it are vacant, who becomes president? The President pro tempore of the Senate -- the position Byrd currently holds.

If he's not fit to chair a committee, he's not fit to be in line for the presidency especially not the Senate's first in line.

The Democratic leadership has made that necessary. We first toyed with this topic as an article early last year but a number of issues led to it being tabled including that it would be seen, especially since we were very clear that we would not vote John McCain, as some sort of an effort to harm his presidential run by raising the age issue. To be clear, Robert Byrd can run for president and if the voters elect him president, age isn't an issue.

But Byrd and his colleagues really aren't running for office these days. They are incumbents and the re-election rate for incumbents means that there's no real running for office in most cases. OpenSecrets notes, "Few things in life are more predictable than the chances of an incumbent member of the U.S. House of Representatives winning reelection. With wide name recognition, and usually an insurmountable advantage in campaign cash, House incumbents typically have little trouble holding onto their seats . . . Senate races still overwhelmingly favor the incumbent, but not by as reliable a margin as House races. Big swings in the national mood can sometimes topple long time office-holders, as happened with the Reagan revolution in 1980. Even so, years like that are an exception." This is backed up by their graphs where you will find, for example, the 2004 re-election rate for incumbents in the US Congress: House office holders were re-elected by 98% and Senate office holders by 96%.

Let's stop pretending the bulk of incumbents ever have to worry about holding onto their seats.

And let's stop pretending about the 'kid' tapped to replace Byrd as chair of the Senate Appropriations Committees. That would be Senator Daniel Inouye, a whipper snapper of 84-years. Repeating, 84-years-old.

The Daniels

Inouye is not only the incoming chair of the Senate Appropriates Committee, he's also the senior senator from Hawaii. "Junior" would be Daniel Akaka who is also 84-years-old (four days younger than Inouye, in fact). Ted Kennedy is 76-years-old and last ran for re-election in 2006. In May of this year, he informed voters he was ill, brain cancer. A few months later he had surgery, taking constituents by surprise. The surgery is thought to have extended Kennedy's life expectancy (by a few months) but he had a seizure in August that no one's said a great deal on but the 'official word' is the seizure resulted from medications. (His being diagnosed with brain cancer was preceded by at least two seizures.) Carl Levin is 74-years-old, Herbert Kohl is 73-years-old and Jay Rockefeller is 71-years-old. Tom Harkin and Harry Reid will both turn 70 in 2009.

In his June 2007 speech, Byrd declared, "I will continue to work until this old body just gives out and drops -- but don't expect that to be any time soon." Are Senate seats to be lifetime offices? The rate of re-election indicates that is possible if someone's life is so damn pathetic that all they have to live for is their job. There is something really sick about this. From time to time, for example, one of the above listed senators is "honored" for his consecutive days of service (in 2004, Daniel Akaka issued a proclamation honoring Daniel Inouye, for example) as though this was something to be proud of. You can't say, "As though Inouye was the Baltimore Orioles Cal Ripken Jr." because, note, Ripken had the good sense to step down. In terms of good sense, about all you can say for the senators is, "At least they didn't use a revolving door to become lobbyists."

Some may wonder about Republicans. To the best of our knowledge, Republicans are not ousting minority chairs from Senate committees -- nor are we aware of any shenanigans in the House on either side of the aisle. But Democratic leadership in the Senate has made it an issue with their two-year whisper campaign against Byrd. Having made it an issue, it's time for Americans to move the issue beyond Byrd.
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