In the House, Is 80 Over the Hill?

When Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., lost the GOP primary to challenger Richard Mourdock this month, Beltway types saw the voters’ verdict as a victory for the tea party and a defeat for the kind of Republican who could work across the aisle. I think Lugar, 80, lost because he is out of touch with Indiana. He started the primary registered to vote at an Indiana home he had sold in 1977. The Lugars have resided in Virginia ever since. Lugar had been working in Washington for so long that he didn’t realize he needed to keep up at least the appearance of being a Hoosier.

No doubt, Lugar’s fate sent a chill through the spine of Rep. Pete Stark, D-Calif. Like Lugar, Stark, 80, owns one home — not in California but in Maryland.

There are 12 octogenarians in the House of Representatives. I thought of Lugar when I saw a tweet by the Daily Kos Elections folks that announced that six of them — Reps. Ralph Hall, R-Texas; Roscoe Bartlett, R-Md.; John Conyers, D-Mich.; Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y.; Charles Rangel, D-N.Y.; and Stark — “could lose.” One, Rep. Dale Kildee, D-Mich., is retiring.

Does age matter? By itself, I’d say no — although my 81-year-old father says that all things being equal, he wouldn’t vote for someone his age.

Rep. Elton Gallegly, R-Calif., is retiring at 68, young enough, he said, to “still have a life afterward.” He believes the answer varies by individual; some octogenarians are “alert, committed (and) physically and mentally able to do the job.” He named Hall and Conyers as examples. Others, he said, “have stayed too long.”

Eric Sterling, president of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, was an attorney for the House Judiciary Committee. He thinks the dividing line is whether members think that they serve you or that “they’re entitled to the office.”

In the list of octomembers, a few names do not do the institution proud. Conyers sat back while his Detroit politician wife sought a taxpayer-funded attorney — because she was indigent — to appeal her plea bargain in a federal bribery case. He was earning $174,000 a year.

In 2010, the House censured Rangel for 11 Ethics Committee violations. One instance involved Rangel’s push for $6 million in earmarks for a Rangel Center for Public Service. Hasn’t Rangel done enough public service?

Stark’s uncivil remarks — he called one colleague a “whore,” another a “fruitcake” — have made him a staple in Esquire’s “10 Worst Members of Congress” list. He is so problematic that when ethics problems forced Rangel to step down as House Ways and Means Committee chairman, House Dems ignored their seniority system when replacing him and passed over Stark.

Stark didn’t look particularly in touch when, at a San Francisco Chronicle editorial board meeting, he erroneously accused me of giving money to an opponent.

Sterling observes that when senior members walk the halls, all they hear is “yes, Mr. Chairman.” They are “swaddled in adoration everywhere that they go. It’s intoxicating. I think it can be as addictive as cocaine.”

Rangel and Stark got hooked on privilege a long time ago. They were embarrassments to the House long before they turned 80. They didn’t much care, and neither did their constituents. But eventually, even a sense of entitlement can get old.

Email Debra J. Saunders at [email protected].

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