The news of the week is the considered U.S. House of Representatives trial on ethics charges of Charles Rangel (D) of the 15th District of New York. It seems Mr. Rangel is accused of the famous old crime of using U.S mailing privileges for private concerns, running multiple rent control apartments in abeyance of the law, failing to report rental property income on off shore properties to the tune of $600,000, and coercing donors into giving to the Charles Rangel School of Public Service at City College of New York, among other violations. Mr. Rangel, 80 years old, has now served 40 years in congress. This unfortunately makes him only the fourth longest serving member, with David Obey(D) of 7th Wisconsin at 42 years determining to retire this year, John Conyers(D) 14th Michigan at 45 years, and the estimable John Dingell (D) of 15th Michigan coming in at, you heard it right, 56 years in the house of representatives. These terms have been served consecutively, and these gentlemen have been immune to re-election risks.
The Senate has been no better, with the recent Lion of the Senate, Ted Kennedy(D) of Massachusetts, at 46 years, and the Master of the Senate, Robert Byrd(D) of West Virginia at 57 years, requiring the ultimate term limit to achieve removal. Waiting in the wings is Senator Daniel Inouye(D) of Hawaii, only 50 years of continuous governing. In fact 42% of its members who have served 20 years or more in what was once looked on as a period of public service in an otherwise private life. The Congress of the United States has become a career.
I am sure all these gentlemen are , or have been, worthy servants of their populus, but are these the giants we need to stand on the shoulders of the founding fathers? Is it feasible that after 40 years in a profession, or at 80 years of age or greater, you still have your finger on the pulse of societal change, the direction the country needs to go, the investments and priorities it needs to put forth? The man considered the greatest historical congressman of our democracy, Senator Daniel Webster of Massachusetts, managed to fashion greatness in the wells of congress for 29 years – well, congressmen didn’t live that long in those days. Except that he imposed his own term limits twice and did not serve consecutively, finding other contributions to make with his oratorical skills.
It is no small consideration that all these gentlemen are from one party. The stasis and idea decay are becoming profound. I suggest we look again at the state level of reducing the number of feasible consecutive terms and give some individuals who might have some new ideas a try. I don’t think honestly we are likely going to miss all this “experience”.