Mike Sheridan89 /flickrU.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) died this morning at the age of 89.
He fought in World War II, spent 30 years as CEO of the payroll firm Automatic Data Processing, and had a significant record of accomplishment as a Senator. And he stuck around long after he should have retired — because we insanely treat Senate seats like property that favoured elders are entitled to hold until they die.
Lautenberg’s declining health caused him to miss most Senate votes since the end of 2012. In January, Newark Mayor Cory Booker announced that he would run for Senate in 2014 as a Democrat, whether Lautenberg retired or not. And Lautenberg and his aides responded with an astounding sense of entitlement.
Lautenberg’s aides told the press Booker was being “disrespectful.” When Lautenberg spoke to the Philadelphia Inquirer in January, he was more forgiving, sort of, saying: “I have four children, I love each one of them. I can’t tell you that one of them wasn’t occasionally disrespectful, so I gave them a spanking and everything was OK.”
In March, after Lautenberg announced his planned retirement, his staffers were still giving anonymous quotes to press reflecting their discontent with Booker. One told the Newark Star-Ledger: “The whole incident rubbed Frank the wrong way, and it’s going to take some time. It just struck some people as not the right thing to do to your grandfather.”
There is a reason that Fortune 500 companies, major non-profits, and government agencies are not typically run by octogenarians. Important and demanding jobs require a level of vigor that people typically cannot muster at that age.
And there comes a point where being older does not necessarily make you wiser — witness the late Senator Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), who issued his famed “series of tubes” rant while chairing the Senate Commerce Committee at the age of 82. Elderly senators are making laws that govern technology they are too old to understand.
We need a younger and more vigorous Senate. There are a few ways we could achieve that. We could impose term limits. We could have a mandatory retirement age like in the Canadian Senate and many state court systems. We could also have a provision for temporary leaves of absence, so Senators suffering from ill health could step aside temporarily to recuperate.
But the most promising option is a change of norms. More politicians should take Booker’s view that being a good team player doesn’t mean waiting forever for your party’s incumbents to retire — and that the key question to ask when deciding whether to mount a primary challenge is not “would this be a nice thing to do to grandpa.”
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