Senate looks out for its own
Carter Glass was the dean of the U.S. Senate and chairman of its Appropriations Committee when he became incapacitated with heart trouble in the 1940s. The octogenarian was absent from the Capitol for four full years, unable to answer a roll call on the Senate floor, cut off from all visitors by his wife.
Local newspapers began to clamor for his resignation, but the Virginia Democrat refused. His Senate colleagues allowed Glass to keep his seat, and even his powerful chairmanship.
That was more than half a century ago, but it illustrates an enduring tradition in one of the world’s most exclusive political clubs: Never has the Senate forced a member out of office because of a physical or mental inability to serve.
That hands-off protocol could be a boon to Democrats as they ponder the possibility that Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) could be incapacitated for months or more after emergency surgery to treat bleeding in his brain. If Johnson dies or leaves office before the new Congress convenes next month, it will erase the Democrats’ 51-49 majority and probably return control of the Senate to the Republican Party.
But if he survives and if history is any guide, the only force that will drive Johnson from office before his term expires in 2008 will be a decision by the senator or his family. The Senate -- not governors or voters -- has the constitutional power to force a member out, but has been loath to use it.
“No one in the Senate wants to have that kind of responsibility for judging whether another member is capable or not,” said Don Ritchie, associate Senate historian.
“The Senate is a family, as well as a club. There’s a real sense of sticking together.”
There have been a couple examples of House seats being declared vacant because of inability to serve, but they involved cases where lawmakers were elected while incapacitated and were unable to take their seats. Gladys Noon Spellman, a longtime House member from Maryland, had a heart attack and went into a coma shortly before election day in 1980, but her name remained on the ballot and she was reelected. Because she was still in a coma when the new Congress convened, she could not be sworn in, and her family eventually asked that her seat be declared vacant.
Infirm politicians are able to linger in the halls of Congress in part because they are surrounded by armies of aides who can obscure a distressing reality, both to the public and the politician.
Former Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), who turned 100 while still in office, was so frail at the end of his career that he could hardly walk onto the Senate floor without gripping the arms of staff members.
“They made sure he showed up to vote, and that’s what counted,” Ritchie said.
But history is replete with examples of infirm lawmakers who could not even show up to vote, talk or maintain consciousness -- and yet were allowed to keep their seats.
In the mid-19th century, Sen. Charles Sumner (R-Mass.) was absent from the Senate for more than three years after being beaten with a cane on the Senate floor by Rep. Preston Brooks (D-S.C.) in a dispute over slavery. Despite Sumner’s incapacity, the Massachusetts Legislature reelected the slavery opponent.
In 1964, a California Democrat voted in the Senate though he could not speak. Clair Engle, partially paralyzed by repeated operations for brain cancer, was carried onto the Senate floor to cast a key vote on the Civil Rights Act. Voiceless, he pointed to his eye to signify an “aye” vote.
A previous occupant of Johnson’s South Dakota Senate seat, Karl Mundt, had a debilitating stroke in 1969 and was in a coma for some time. He refused to resign, even under pressure from fellow Republicans who feared the GOP would lose the governorship in 1970, and remained formally in his seat until his term expired in 1973.
Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) was away from the Senate for seven months in 1988 for brain surgery.
While recovering at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, he shared a suite for three months with another incapacitated senator, John Stennis (D-Miss.), who continued as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee even after his bout with cancer, to which he lost a leg.
When Stennis’ predecessor as Appropriations chairman, Glass, refused to quit, Virginia newspapers were near unanimous in calling for his retirement. The News Leader in Staunton led the call with a mid-1945 editorial: “It is plainly the duty of Mrs. Carter Glass to make it clear to her husband that his age and physical condition disbar him from further duty in the Senate and to prevail on him to tender his resignation.”
But Glass hung on, even though he was away from the Senate from June 1942 until his death in May 1946.
It probably helped that he remained nominally in charge of the committee that holds Congress’ purse strings.
“He was a powerful, influential senator, and no one wanted to remove him,” Ritchie said.