By MARSHA MERCER
Did you hear the one about sleep-deprived octogenarians in the Senate?
There’s no punch line. A Republican House member told his colleagues it would be ridiculous to follow the old fogies in voting for the fiscal cliff agreement. Fortunately, wiser heads prevailed, and the joke was on him.
One lesson we can learn from the fiscal cliff drama: Experience matters.
We’ve debated for years whether Washington insiders are a boon or a bane in public life. Too often it seems that the less a congressional candidate knows, or wants to know, about how Washington works, the more voters like him or her.
The motto of the U.S. Term Limits group, “citizen legislators, not career politicians,” is appealing -- until there’s a crisis that requires political skill.
Were it not for two savvy old political pros, the country would have plunged over the fiscal cliff permanently and landed in the ravine of recession. The New Year’s Day deal to avoid tax hikes and deep automatic cuts in spending was far from perfect, but it was good news for the country. It was bad news for advocates of congressional term limits and ageists who prefer stereotypes to real life examples.
Two 70-year-olds who had served together in the Senate for about a quarter of a century rose to the occasion. Vice President Joe Biden, formerly the Democratic senator from Delaware, and Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Republican senator from Kentucky, reached the compromise that had eluded the president and house speaker.
President Barack Obama isn’t a natural negotiator. Goading when he should have guided, Obama infuriated Republicans every time he opened his mouth. Critics complained that Obama should have been more like Lyndon Johnson, but Obama lacks LBJ’s long years in the House and Senate. Nor does he have Bill Clinton’s or George W. Bush’s gubernatorial experience, coping with legislators from the other party.
As for Speaker John Boehner, he gave up trying to herd the tea-chugging cats in his own party. Boehner, a lad of 63 who came to the House in 1991, grew so frustrated after needling from Senate Majority leader Harry Reid, who’s a decade older with four more Senate years, that Boehner used locker room language to Reid -- in the White House.
The approval rating for Congress hovers below 20 percent, so it’s no big surprise that three out of four Americans tell pollsters they favor limiting how long someone can stay in Congress. But after Arkansas tried to do just that, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1995 that states may not restrict the number of congressional terms. To limit terms requires a constitutional amendment. The Florida legislature last year passed a resolution urging Congress to adopt a term-limits amendment.
The twin public appetites for term limits and the sweet bird of youth can result in odd moments.
While campaigning for his eighth term in Congress, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., was asked if he supported congressional term limits of two terms for the Senate and three for the House. Yes, indeed, he said; he’s a big fan. Really?
In November, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, 72, was asked by NBC News’ Luke Russert, 27, whether she and her team were keeping a younger generation of Democrats from taking the House reins. Her deputies, Steny Hoyer of Maryland, and Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, are 73 and 72.
“Some of your colleagues privately say that your decision to stay on prohibits the party from having a younger leadership and hurts the party in the long run,” Russert said, and asked for her response. She allowed that his question was “quite offensive” but he probably didn’t realize it.
Pelosi, a formidable fundraiser for Democratic candidates, proved her leadership skills during the fiscal cliff-hanger. She held her Democratic caucus together in support of the agreement, allowing many Republicans to make a show of voting no, pretending they opposed the agreement.
Such theatrics belie the serious challenges that face our country. Thank heavens we still have experienced hands in Congress. Let’s hope they use their political expertise to do right for the country. This is no time for amateurs or snide comments.
© 2013 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.