Washington Insider - Monday

Age Creeps up on Senators

Here’s a quick monitor of Washington farm and trade policy issues from DTN’s well-placed observer.

Governors push importance of NAFTA in session with Pence

Four governors meeting with Vice President Mike Pence pushed the importance of the U.S. remaining in the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) as negotiations to modernize the deal continue. Republican Governors Kim Reynolds of Iowa, Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas, Bill Haslam of Tennessee, and Rick Snyder of Michigan underscored the trade deal is key to several sectors, including autos and agriculture and the need for the U.S. to remain internationally competitive.

They warned of negative impacts if the pact falls by the wayside, with Hutchinson warning of "serious harm" to agriculture, retail and manufacturing sectors in his state. They labeled the situation an ongoing discussion. Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb also met with Pence on NAFTA earlier in the week, accompanied by representatives of several automakers. The sessions came as technical-level discussions took place in Washington on several fronts with hopes of getting progress in non-controversial areas though it is not clear yet whether that goal has been realized.

Texas and Florida Lawmakers Call On Disaster Aid to Help Farmers

The next emergency funding effort for hurricane damage needs to provide support for agriculture producers in Florida and Texas, members of the states' congressional delegations told House and Senate Appropriations panel leaders in a letter. The lawmakers want a backlog in key emergency programs to be addressed, such as the Emergency Conservation Program (ECP) and others, and they want the measure to "eliminate the red tape" for existing USDA disaster assistance programs.

Targeted assistance to existing safety net programs for underserved commodities is also needed, the lawmakers said, including efforts to address low participation and coverage levels for crop insurance "on commodities without an effective safety net." However, they noted they fully support crop insurance. "We also strongly urge that the holds in the safety net for our dairy and cotton farmers be finally addressed," the lawmakers said, a reference to sought-after changes in the 2014 Farm Bill programs for those two commodities that have not provided the safety net envisioned when the bill was written. Including changes to the cotton and dairy safety net programs would also help farm bill writers as they put together the next version of U.S. farm law.

Washington Insider: Age Creeps up on Senators

Given the toxic and super-toxic fights in Washington these days, the Washington Post seems to have noticed one that will be hard to win—it says Congress is being hampered because too many are too old.

It notes that this week, with a compromise bill marching toward final passage in both chambers, the House has to vote first — because a pair of senators, Thad Cochran, R-Miss., and John McCain, R-Ariz., are recuperating from, respectively, non-melanoma skin surgery and the side effects of cancer treatments.

Then The Post notes a strategy used by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who is 83, when the Senate’s massive tax bill came through the Finance Committee. He deputized four younger Republicans on the panel to serve as de facto co-chairmen over various parts of the legislation.

Hatch’s advisers say his move was coalition building. But there’s something else to consider, the Post says. It reflects the fact that the Senate has become, by one measure, the oldest Senate ever. Eight octogenarians currently serve, nearly twice as many as ever before. Another handful of senators are at least 75.

And, it says, the change in schedule for the tax bill is at least the third time this year that Senate leaders paused action to accommodate ailing colleagues. It is now clear that the large number of older senators in positions of power “is taking a toll on the operations of Washington.”

First came the unsuccessful repeal effort of the Affordable Care Act, delayed until McCain returned to Washington following his initial diagnosis and surgery. McCain has been suffering from the side effects of an aggressive round of chemotherapy and radiation.

In mid-October, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., waited out Cochran’s return from a debilitating urinary tract infection to pass a budget that was essential to setting up the framework for passage of the tax plan.

To be fair, some of these seniors are healthier and wittier than their junior colleagues — Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa., 84, runs four times a week — and some exemplify an aging society where professionals function at high levels well beyond traditional retirement age.

But, collectively, the institution is struggling amid the weight of so many seniors holding such critical positions. Some colleagues say that it has become too hard for senators to walk away at the right time.

All eight of today’s 80-something senators hold top posts. Cochran, first elected in 1978, controls the purse strings of every federal agency as chairman of the Appropriations Committee. McCain oversees the Pentagon on the Armed Services Committee.

Some senators get angry when asked about their age. “If I can run three miles four times a week, I’ll be running for reelection,” said Grassley, pondering a bid for reelection in 2022, when he will be 89.

Informed that this was the oldest Senate ever, Sen. Patrick Leahy D-Vt., chuckled. “I feel younger every day,” the 77-year-old joked.

Leahy, first elected in 1974, won reelection last year to a term that will end when he is 82. He has a ritual, around every birthday, to test his physical fitness. He goes scuba diving, first swimming down to the depth of his new age, doing a somersault underwater to the 90-foot mark, then swimming to the surface.

“If I reach the point that I can’t go scuba diving and do my somersaults, that will be one clear indication,” Leahy said of knowing when to retire.

For the Senate’s first 100 years, no one ever served into their 80s. Over the next 100 years, there were a few brief moments with two or three. Only 49 senators have ever turned 80 in office, and 15 of those came in the past 20 years.

Some senators face pressure to stay in office from former staffers whose K Street livelihood is in large part connected to clients with interests before that senator. Sometimes it comes from leaders back home who want their states to reap the benefits of Senate seniority.

Trent Lott, the Republican former Senate majority leader, thinks the Appropriations chairmanship is too valuable to pass up and that, “We should keep that chairmanship until the bloody last day that we can.’ ”

Cochran, when he has appeared in the Senate in recent months, has been attended by a staffer who sits next to him and alerts the senator when it is time to vote.

Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker says it’s easy to grow comfortable with the trappings of power and a large staff that, as senators grow older, sometimes functions like a team of aides in a retirement home.

“It is a lot of work, if you really want to do your job right,” Leahy said. “You’ve got to be able to do that. If you can’t, it’s not fair to your state or the U.S. Senate to stay here.”

So, choosing when to retire from important posts is always a hard call, for many reasons. Still, there are already growing questions about how well the Congress functions and it may be that age is beginning to be noticed as a factor in capacity to serve—although, probably not right away, Washington Insider believes.

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