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Experienced Hands Harder to Find in Senate

From Stevens and Biden to Specter and Dodd, It’s Been Two Years of Institutional Losses

File Photo
Chris Dodd (above), Arlen Specter and Judd Gregg take a combined 78 years of Senate experience into retirement. Dodd and Gregg chose not to stand for re-election, while Specter lost the Democratic primary after switching parties.

When the clock strikes midnight on the 111th Congress, the Senate will complete a two-year span in which hundreds of years of institutional knowledge, experience and star power will have exited the chamber to make way for a crop of new lawmakers.

The generational exodus began in the days and weeks after Election Day 2008, when one Senator resigned to become president, another vice president and a third ­— Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) — officially lost his bid for a seventh term when mid-November vote counting confirmed his defeat.

It continued when the 111th convened as two Senators became Cabinet secretaries. Then came the deaths of Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), taking with him the last vestige of a consequential familial Senate dynasty, and Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), who was in the middle of his ninth term.

For institutionalists, it got worse as the campaign season progressed. Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) announced his retirement, opting not to face a hostile electorate. Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah), like Dodd, the son of a former Senator, chose to fight for his seat, but he failed to earn a spot on his state’s primary ballot. Longtime Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.) left the GOP to improve his electoral prospects, only to lose a Democratic primary, while Sens. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) and Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) lost in the Nov. 2 general election.

Sen. Byron Dorgan (N.D.), a third-term Democrat who chose retirement over running for re-election, said the heavy turnover has positive implications as well as a few drawbacks. The incoming Members bring with them fresh energy and perspectives on pressing issues, although the loss in policy and political expertise garnered over several years can be detrimental to the Senate’s ability to function as the Constitution intended, Dorgan said.

“I do think it is in many ways good for the Senate to have new people coming in. It’s also important for them to understand the traditions and the culture and why it is the body that it is,” Dorgan said last week. “Those who have been around here a long time have a vast reservoir of knowledge on issues ... and that institutional knowledge is important for a body like the Senate.”

First elected in 1992, Dorgan serves as Indian Affairs chairman and holds the gavel on two subcommittees. He also heads the Democratic Policy Committee, an appointed position within the Democratic Conference leadership.

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