Senate Needs Age Limit of 80 Years Old

Last week Sen. Tim Johnson (D.-S.D.) suffered what appeared to be a stroke. He lost his ability to speak. After the attending physician to Congress, Rear Adm. John Eisold, examined him he was rushed to George Washington University Hospital, where he underwent brain surgery. It seems he was bleeding from blood vessels which never had formed properly. Johnson has an unusual birth defect, apparently termed arteriovenous malformation, estimated to affect some 300,000 Americans. Now doctors report he is recovering but the long-term prognosis is much harder to predict.

The first person to rush to Johnson’s side was Majority Leader-elect Harry Reid (D.-Nev.). I am sure it occurred to Reid that should the Johnson seat be vacated, the Republican governor of South Dakota no doubt would appoint a Republican to serve until the next election. That would move the Senate to a 50-50 tie.

Inasmuch as Vice President Cheney breaks ties, the Senate would be in Republican hands. That, in fact, was the situation in 2000. There was a tie and Cheney broke it as soon as he was sworn into office. From that day the Republicans were in control. Then when Vermont Sen. Jim Jeffords caucused with the Democrats, after he became a so-called independent, Republicans lost control.

Reid does not have to worry about his precarious majority unless Johnson was to die or to resign.

There is a precedent in Johnson’s own state, which probably would deter him from resigning regardless of his condition.

In 1966 Sen. Karl Mundt handily was re-elected. He served until November 1969, when he suffered a stroke, which left him in a virtual vegetative state.

Mrs. Mundt guarded him day and night and would not permit reporters from South Dakota to see him. After a couple of years and when South Dakota voters were getting restless, Willard Edwards, Washington correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, was permitted purportedly to interview Mundt. Edwards wrote that Mundt was getting better and was preparing to return to the Senate. Edwards, the father of conservative biographer Lee Edwards, came to see me in my capacity as press secretary to Sen. Gordon L. Allot (R.-Colo.). I gave him the information he was seeking and then I confronted him. “Why did you do a false story on Senator Mundt? You know very well he is not getting better and has no intention to run for re-election.” Edwards looked at the floor and mumbled that he wanted to help Mrs. Mundt, an old family friend. The Edwards story was picked up by every South Dakota media outlook. That calmed down the voters but not the governor. He wanted two senators representing that small state. Mrs. Mundt, on the other hand, wanted the higher pension benefits if Mundt served his complete term.

Finally, when the term was ending, the governor went to see Mrs. Mundt. He showed her a certificate appointing Bob McCaughey, the senator’s longtime administrative assistant, to the Senate. McCaughey had been a close friend of the Mundts and the governor thought perhaps to see McCaughey in the Senate would be enough for Mrs. Mundt. It was not. The other paper the governor had with him was a letter of resignation. The governor pleaded with Mrs. Mundt, observing that the pension benefits were substantially the same if the senator resigned near the end of his term or if he stayed in office until January of 1973. She said absolutely not.

There are other precedents as well. Sen. Carter Glass (D.-Va.) served from June 1942 until May 1946 unable to vote — and was re-elected in November 1942! Sen. Clair Engle (D.-Calif.) was so ill that he could not speak. The Democrats brought him to the Senate floor by a wheelchair. When it came to vote on the major civil rights bill of 1964, Engle pointed to his eye as a substitute saying “aye.” Senators H. Styles Bridges (R.-N.H.), Robert F. Wagner (D.-N.Y.), Arthur H. Vandenberg (R.-Mich.), Joseph P. Biden, Jr. (D.-Del.), David Pryor (D.-Ark.) and Jay Rockefeller IV (D.-W.Va.) between them missed votes for about five years.

We don’t know at this point Johnson’s longer term prognosis. He could be out for months. Voters returned Sen. Strom Thurmond (R.-S.C.) to office knowing that he would be 100 years old if he completed his term. He did so but it wasn’t easy. At the end of the first session of the 108th Congress, he returned to his office and told his chief of staff “It’s time to go home.” The chief of staff had a devil of a time convincing him that he had another year to serve. He was in a wheelchair for most of the time, but other than that incident, he seems to have kept his wits about him.

It seems to me that it is about time for the Senate to reform its rules. No senator should be able to serve past age 80. If senators became ill they should be given six months to recover. If a senator is not able to say “aye” and “nay” clearly and knows what he is voting on, fine, even if he is in a wheelchair. But if the senator is not of sound mind he should have to give up that seat. Senators, unlike House members, do not face their electorate every other year.

With the present rules Reid need not worry. The Senate will stay in the hands of the Democrats even if Johnson is never able to cast a vote or speak a sentence.

Last time out Johnson won his race by a mere 500 votes. And now his seat mate from South Dakota is Republican Sen. John Thune. There is a clear contrast between the two on issues.

Our sympathy goes out to Johnson, his wife and family.


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