Saturday, May 08, 2010

Why won't they walk away? (UPDATED)

1st UPDATE: 9:20 a.m. EDT: And just in case you think your age does (or doesn't) matter, consider this -- the Associated Press reports the ages of the men and women President Obama is considering for his Supreme Court nominee are indeed an important factor in his selection. (The story also notes the importance of the Court's gender balance.)

ORIGINAL POST: I was a guest on Rob Pratte's radio program on KDKA this morning, and an intriguing question was asked -- why don't politicians walk away?

The premise of the conversation was Pennsylvania's senior senator Arlen Specter, who is 80, and has been in the Senate for almost 30 years. Sen. Specter has battled cancer, but more importantly he's at an age where almost every person is enjoying retirement.

But Sen. Specter shows no signs of wanting to slow down. And neither are a healthy number of his Senate colleagues.

Setting aside whether he should retire (and I think you're going to answer that based on your political persuasion), the senator is indeed not unique among the elderly who continue to walk the halls of Congress. Now, I'm not attempting to sound ageist here, and in no way am I suggesting that people of a certain age must retire. My unofficial count suggests there are at least 20 U.S. Senators 65 years of age or older.

And in case you are wondering, Sen. Specter at 80 is NOT the oldest U.S. senator currently in office.

Returning to the central issue -- why don't a number of politicians opt for retirement?

Ego certainly plays a role, but I doubt that tells the full story. I think these senators also believe their work is not done; there is more they believe they need to do for their constituents. Moreover, they continue to be elected -- voters certainly have the option of sending these folks into retirement, and they are opting not to. On top of that, they are in almost every case at the top of the Senate pecking order; they have seniority (in terms of years of service; don't you try to twist my words and get me in trouble!!) and are seen as among the most influential of an already influential group.

Perhaps the question posed during my radio interview should have been phrased differently. Maybe the more important question is: Who has the right to tell someone they must walk away? In the case of a politician, the answer is really only the most important people -- the voters. And if they want to keep the 65-and-older crowd in the Senate, then I nor anyone else has the right (the authority is maybe a better word?) to tell an individual their time is done.

Just ask Penn State football coach Joe Paterno.

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