- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 7, 2010

As Sens. Byron L. Dorgan and Christopher J. Dodd announced their retirements this week, their colleagues lamented the years of experience they’ll take with them.

Combined with the death last year of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, who had nearly 47 years in the Senate under his belt, and the ascension of Joseph R. Biden Jr. to the vice presidency, Democrats will have lost 120 years of Senate experience this election cycle - not including the relative youngsters who left, such as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and President Obama.

On the Republican side, the retirements of Sens. Christopher S. Bond, Judd Gregg, Sam Brownback, George V. Voinovich and Jim Bunning at the end of this year will cost the GOP 80 years’ experience.

“It’s a profound loss, and there’s no way it’s not going to have a dramatic impact on the Senate, and it’s probably not a positive impact. But the institution’s been around a long time, and it goes through these cycles,” said Patrick J. Griffin, a former White House and Senate staffer who teaches on Congress at American University’s School of Public Affairs. “What people will feel will be the cultural impact of their loss, and then the technical expertise … these guys shaped how that place feels.”

The departures may not be over. Sen. Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, is under intense electoral pressure back home as he fights for a fifth term. And Sen. Robert C. Byrd, West Virginia Democrat, who took office 51 years ago, has been ailing for some time, though he made all of the key health care votes last month.

Still, Stephen Hess, a longtime Washington fixture and senior fellow emeritus at the Brookings Institution, said in the old days, the loss of experience and seniority may have mattered more.

“It may once have been a body, or it may all be the myth of a body, that these senators deferred or listened to their elders’ experience, the wisdom. I doubt much of that happens, or has been happening for a very long time,” said Mr. Hess, pointing to jet travel and large Senate staffs as reasons for the demise of the old order.

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With senators able to fly home for weekends and be back for work, there’s less time to talk, share experiences and forge bipartisan ties. And with Senate staffs so big, many senators never go far beyond their inner circles for companions.

He recalled a recent article that lamented that senators no longer use the Senate Dining Room, which used to be a place where members of the world’s most exclusive club could retreat, set aside partisan differences and regroup with only their colleagues.

Former Sen. John W. Warner, who retired at the end of the last Congress after 30 years in office, recalled his early days, when freshman senators really were expected to learn at the feet of their elders.

Mr. Warner said every year in the Senate adds to experience, particularly in areas where senators choose to specialize. For Mr. Dodd, that is banking and finance. For Mr. Warner, it was defense.

But Mr. Warner also said anyone who gets elected likely has already demonstrated ability and experience in some areas, and have shown their constituents they can serve capably.

“Somehow, the old Senate rocks and rolls, and somehow the republic stays together,” he said.

Bill Lacy, director of the Robert J. Dole Institute for Politics at the University of Kansas, said bipartisanship will be a victim of the loss of long-serving senators.

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