Benjamin Franklin once wrote,

“Fish and visitors stink after three days.” 

Based on Franklin’s assessment, the United States Capitol must surely reek with the number of politicians who have unprecedented length of tenure.  

This past week, the Senate celebrated a milestone with the marking of the longest serving Senator in U.S. history – Senator Robert Byrd (D-W.V.).  At 92 years old, Byrd has served in the U.S. Congress for 57 consecutive years: six years as a U.S. Congressman representing West Virginia’s 6th District, and 51 years as a West Virginia Senator.   

I had the unique opportunity to meet Senator Byrd when I literally ran into him in a hallway at the Capitol Building.  In my defense, I didn’t see him at first because he was seated in his wheel chair.  And, in my natural state of rushing around, I almost tripped over his chair as we met at the corner of the hallway!  (Okay, I hear some of you laughing as you read this, I’ll admit that I may be a bit clumsy at times…but back to Byrd.) 

The second time I saw Sen. Byrd was again in the Capitol, this time he was using a walker and was accompanied by an assistant and a personal nurse.  It struck me that this man was too infirmed to be serving in the Senate.  With all the important legislation being discussed and debated, which included the outrageous Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act that I helped to defeat in 2007, this elderly man did not seem to me to be well enough or alert enough to grasp the technicalities or the ramifications of this one bill.   So, I wondered…why was he elected over and over? 

Age and illness has never stopped Senator Byrd from being an effective voice for the citizens of West Virginia. In fact, Sen. Byrd is considered West Virginia’s largest industry, bringing in hundreds of millions of dollars per year in Federal funds.  According to Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW), Byrd managed to funnel $326 Million of pork-barrel projects to his home state in FY2008 alone.  How did Byrd achieve this?  Simple, he has served on appropriations (funding) committees since 1959 – that is 50 years as of this year!  

With this kind of clout, it’s not hard to see why the citizens of West Virginia keep voting this man into office, term after term.  They have even awarded his efforts at acquiring this disproportionate allocation of federal funds to their state by naming 30 public works projects after Sen. Byrd.  

Lengthy tenure in Washington politics is not limited to Byrd; there are currently 10 members of Congress (House and Senate) that have served more than 36 years!  They are:  

 

John Dingell of Michigan – 54 years; 

 

Daniel Inouye of Hawaii – 50 years; 

 

 

John Conyers of Michigan – 44 years; 

  

 

Dave Obey of Wisconsin – 40  years; 

  

 

 

Charles Rangel of New York – 38 years; 

  

 

Bill Young of Florida – 38 years; 

  

 

 

Thad Cochran of Mississippi – 36 years; 

  

 

 

Pete Stark of California – 36 years; 

  

 

Don Young of Alaska – 36 years. 

  

 

While some people may think that a long tenure in Congress is admirable, many, like me, think it is deplorable.  

By continuing to elect the same person to office for multiple terms, voters are perpetuating the opportunity for corruption.  

Long term connections between career politicians create situations where favors are returned with more favors.  Thus, the explanation of why so much pork spending is actually approved.  A newcomer to the Senate or House would have little to no clout with fellow members and fewer favors to return.  With term limits, this type of situation could be, at least, curbed.  

Like most of our Founding Fathers, there are politicians who believe in the Citizen Legislator – the concept that legislators should leave their primary job temporarily to serve their country, somewhat like the practice of the National Guard.  George Washington was the prime example of this idea, as he chose to limit his term of President to only 2 terms, rather than continue indefinitely.  

Early this month, Senator Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), along with U.S. Senators Tom Coburn (R-OK), Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX), and Sam Brownback (R-KS), introduced an amendment to the Constitution that would limit the number of terms that a member of Congress may serve; three terms in the House, and two terms in the Senate. 

As long as members have the chance to spend their lives in Washington, their interests will always skew toward spending taxpayer dollars to buy off special interests, covering over corruption in the bureaucracy, fundraising, relationship building among lobbyists, and trading favors for pork – in short, amassing their own power,” said Sen. DeMint to The Washington Times. 

The Democratic majority’s second-highest ranking leader, Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois doesn’t hold much hope that DeMint’s proposal will even get a vote on the Senate floor.  “It’s a great issue to talk about, but it’s not going to happen,” he says.  

Obviously, not all politicians are corrupt.  I would even venture to guess that most enter politics to make a positive change for their communities.  However, human nature combined with intense pressure from others often follows the path of least resistance, leading to favors that ignite a cycle of corruption.  Let’s hope that more members of Congress will take this issue more seriously and allow debate on the subject. 


If not, we are sure to see unapologetic politicians, like Senator Byrd who has said,

“They call me ‘The Pork King,’ they don’t know how much I enjoy it.” 

And that is…Why It Matters.

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Comments
  1. Ben says:

    Sen. Jim DeMint says Washington politicians are like fruit on the vine: the longer they hang around, the more rotten they get.

    On November 10, 2009, the South Carolina Republican introduced an amendment to the Constitution that would limit Senate members to three six-year terms and House members to three two-year terms. His motive is to fix the corrupting influence of “permanent politicians“.

    If interested, you can read the whole wild thing here.
    http://rightamerican.wordpress.com/2009/12/01/term-limits-for-congress-is-it-possible/

  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by linda digiacomo, loie jean. loie jean said: Permanent Politicians « Why It Matters: http://bit.ly/4NnbgM via @addthis […]

  3. Jim says:

    I agree that we need to term limits. The job of a politician now is to get re-elected. This means that they manipulate tax code and budgetary items to favor those that will help them get re-elected or to pay off favors. Not to mention that they pass laws that they themselves will never have to live under. IF they were a citizen legislator they would have to eventually go back to their primary job and live under the same laws they just created. That may change what they would vote for and how they would go about enacted legislation.

    I suggest going to blog; rx4savingus.blogspot.com or reading the book
    Prescription for Saving the United States: The Great Republic

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