The death of Frank Lautenberg is being mourned this week as more than just the loss of the longtime liberal senator from New Jersey. Lautenberg was the last surviving veteran of World War II to serve in the Senate and his passing is the pretext for an orgy of “Greatest Generation” tributes that feed on the nostalgia for the era that produced the people who grew up during the Great Depression and then won the war against the Nazis and Imperial Japan. Writing as the son of a veteran of that war who passed away more than a decade ago, I believe the plaudits for that generation are well deserved, especially when you compare their achievement to the less dramatic record of the baby-boomers who followed them. But the fact that so many of these veterans lingered on in Congress for so long is not exactly a sign of health for our political system.
That’s the point that Tom Bevan makes today at RealClearPolitics.com and its one worth pondering. The ability of people like Lautenberg and Representative John Dingell, who will break the record for the longest-serving member of Congress on Friday, to hang on into their old age isn’t so much testimony to the nation’s desire to make use of the wisdom of our elders as it is to the way the system is still rigged to help incumbents. It’s also worth asking whether it is long past time for us to realize that reliance on the New Deal paradigm and those who still buy into it is one of contemporary Washington’s biggest problems.
The America that produced the “greatest generation” was one that bought into the idea that big government was our only lifeline in a world beset by economic devastation as well as murderous foreign dictators. The social safety net established by Franklin Roosevelt during the 1930s has become the foundation of a national political consensus that stopped being a matter of debate decades ago. But while times and the challenges facing the country have changed, a lot of the people leading the country did not.
As Bevan notes, Dingell, who succeeded his father, has won 29 consecutive terms in a deep blue Michigan district where he has rarely faced a serious opponent. As with many other congressional dinosaurs, Dingell’s survival says more about the power of gerrymandering (which both parties abuse every chance they get) and the way such veterans can use their power to amass campaign funds and employ patronage to buy local support than it does about his personal appeal.
Term limits are a debatable measure for Congress since it can be argued that it takes a while for a new member of the House or Senate to figure out what they’re doing and become effective. But Dingell is the poster child for those who advocate that those limits are the only way to ensure that Congress is not populated by political lifers rather than citizens with experience of the world in which the rest of us live.
Of course, in contrast to Dingell, Lautenberg came to politics late after a successful business career. But, like Dingell, the senator remained mired in the political ideology of the past and was, like many of his colleagues, locked into the old paradigm in which no one ever totaled up the costs for entitlement spending. While Lautenberg’s ADP company helped private businesses control costs and payroll, he and more than a few other “Greatest Generation” liberal pols, who often seemed to act as if it was still 1938, built up a national debt that subsequent generations will struggle to pay off.
To say this is not to diminish the achievements of that generation or to detract from the record of some World War II heroes who had long, honorable and useful careers in the Capitol like the recently deceased Daniel Inouye. There was also something to be said for a generation of politicians that had served in the armed forces, something that is increasingly rare more than 40 years after we switched from a draft to an all-volunteer military. Each politician should be judged on their own merits no matter what their chronological age, but the ability of politicians to hang on long after their best-use date has expired is an ongoing problem in Congress.
Though on average we are living longer than we used to and remaining productive at ages when Americans were usually long retired or dead, there is something slightly pathetic about a political system that recycles people in this way. We should honor Lautenberg’s service, but let’s hope that in the decades to come the presence of aged, out-of-touch and largely ineffective politicians in the halls of Congress will become a rarity rather than commonplace.