Our senior senator, Richard Shelby, will be remembered as Alabama’s most prominent senator when he retires next December. Folks, that’s saying a lot because we have had a host of prominent men serve Alabama in the United States Senate, such as giants like Lister Hill, John Sparkman and John Bankhead. However, history will record that none of these above senators brought the federal dollars back home to Alabama that Shelby has procured.
Seniority is omnipotent in Washington. It is everything, and Senator Shelby has it. He is in his 35th year in the U.S. Senate. He has already broken Senator Sparkman’s 32-year record of longevity in Alabama history and at the end of his term next year he will have served a record 36 years in the Senate. In addition, Shelby was the U.S. Congressman for the old 7th Congressional district for eight years.
Shelby has not only been the most prolific funneler of federal dollars to Alabama in our state’s history, but he could also be considered one of the most profound movers and shakers of federal funds to their state in American history. His only rival was the late Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia. Senator Byrd, who was in his ninth term as a senator when he died at 92, funneled an estimated $10 billion to his constituents during his 51 years in the Senate.
The obvious question asked by observers of Washington politics is, “Are some of our most powerful senators too old to function cognitively?” I can attest to you that I know Senator Richard Shelby personally and he is the most cognitively alert and healthy 87-year-old man I have ever seen. He works out daily and has the memory of an elephant. In fact, his mental and cognitive abilities are similar to someone 30 years his junior. He very well could run and serve another 6-year term. However, he will be 88 at the end of his term.
Shelby is one of five octogenarians serving in the Senate. California’s Dianne Feinstein is the oldest sitting senator at 88. She is followed by Iowa’s Charles “Chuck” Grassley who turns 88 next month. Shelby is the third at 87. James Inhofe of Oklahoma and Senator Pat Leahy of Vermont are 81. By the way, Grassley and Leahy are Shelby’s closest allies in the Senate.
The question becomes, “How old is too old to be a U.S. senator?” According to the Congressional Research Service, the average age of senators at the beginning of this year is 64-years. At some point voters have to weigh, “Is my senator too old to perform the duties of the office or does the weight and power of their seniority and the benefit of their influence to the state outweigh their energy and cognizance?” Voters tend to go with experience and seniority over youth.
Senator Feinstein has been the most widely discussed current senator for decline in health. Liberals believe she was too conciliatory during Supreme Court nominee Amy Comey Barrett’s confirmation hearing. There is a pervasive whispering campaign about Feinstein’s alleged cognitive decline and the Democratic senior leadership has indeed quietly removed her as the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
It was common knowledge and apparent that Senator Shelby’s predecessor as Chairman of Appropriations, Senator Thad Cochran of Mississippi, was not very cognitive in his last years in the Senate although he was younger, chronically. The most notable example of possibly staying too long is probably the story of legendary Senator Strom Thurman of South Carolina. In 2003 Strom Thurman retired at the age of 100 after 48 years in the Senate. It was no secret that his staff did everything for him during his last six-year-term.
Our founding fathers created a minimum age for serving in the U.S. House or Senate but did not address a maximum. The owner of Grub’s Pharmacy used by many on Capitol Hill in Washington raised eyebrows in 2017 when he revealed he routinely sent Alzheimer’s medication to Capitol Hill. There are continuing attempts to pass a Constitutional Amendment to limit terms of Congressmen and Senators. Republicans run on the issue of term limits. It was part of their contract with America Agenda in 1994.
Alabamians need to consider being for term limits in 2022, because it comes down to the old adage of whose ox is being gourd. We in Alabama are going to be up the proverbial creek without a paddle after Shelby. He is our power in Washington. We need to all jump on the term limit bandwagon beginning next year.
See you next week.
— Steve Flowers is Alabama’s leading political columnist. His weekly column appears in over 60 Alabama newspapers. He served 16 years in the Alabama legislature.