Apropos to nothing that almost happened in Alabama this week, did you know that the shortest official tenure on record for a U.S. Senator is two days? Actually, it was more like 24 hours. Rebecca Felton from Georgia was appointed to fill a vacancy on October 3, 1922. She took the oath of office on November 21, 1922, gave one speech, and according to the U.S. Senate historical archives, “concluded with the following prediction: ‘When the women of the country come in and sit with you . . . you will get ability, you will get integrity of purpose, you will get exalted patriotism, and you will get unstinted usefulness.’” Ms. Felton then promptly gave up her seat to Walter George, who had been elected earlier in the month.
You’ll note the qualifier word “official” used in the first sentence above. The argument can be made that Felton really was in office from her appointment day until her appearance in the actual Senate chamber. That was a period of seven weeks. So the real record-holder for shortest tenure might actually belong to one Louis Wyman of New Hampshire. The 1974 race that year was too close to call for a long time. Incumbent Norris Cotton resigned his seat on December 31st. The New Hampshire governor appointed Wyman to complete Cotton’s term, which turned out to be two days (January 1st and 2nd).
Given the hoopla surrounding Roy Moore of late, had he won, it’s possible he may have eclipsed even the shortest tenure in the Senate. But the citizens of Alabama apparently decided they didn’t want to test those waters. Doug Jones will now occupy that state’s second seat. In all probability, he will serve out the remaining two years on now-Attorney General Jeff Session’s original term.
Since Congress first convened on March 4, 1789, there have been a little over 2,000 people who have raised their hands and sworn to uphold the Constitution as members of the U.S. Senate. Robert Byrd of West Virginia holds the record for time on the job, having been in office for 51 years, 5 months, and 26 days.
Most of the men and women who have won election have served considerably less time, and have done so honorably and to the best of their abilities. Some have been brilliant; others have sometimes seemed to be missing a bulb from their chandelier. Both parties can claim members from the intelligence spectrum.
The capacity to think great thoughts is not a pre-requisite for inclusion. Past performance, however, can be a litmus test. Congress as a whole can apparently refuse to seat anyone it feels doesn’t fit the bill (see Roy Moore). Unwelcome members have been denied a place of power for things such as polygamy, bribery, support of the Confederacy, and apparent corruption in some way, shape, or form.
While no Senator has actually been expelled since the Civil War, more than a select few have chosen to resign their posts rather than have their firing made official. As recently as 1979, Democrat Herman Talmadge was censured for improper financial conduct. Republican David Durenberger from Minnesota was officially condemned for unethical conduct involving reimbursement of Senate expenses and accepting gifts.
Al Franken is but the latest Senator to be brought down by a scandal. The Governor of Minnesota has said he will appoint the state’s Lt. Governor to fill the vacancy until a new election can be held. I had hoped he would pick my brother-in-law, Joe, who has lived in suburban Minneapolis for over two decades now. He’s an attorney, but also spent many years as an Immigration Judge. Joe’s a very intelligent guy, likes to think through issues, is the kind of person who reads every page of a new car manual so he knows what he needs to about the vehicle, and would represent the people of the north country well as their representative. He’s not interested in running for the seat, so he could concentrate all his energies on the topics at hand without regard for political consequences. (Wouldn’t that be refreshing?)
Chances are, the Senate would roll out the red carpet for someone such as Joe with many more welcoming smiles than they would have for Roy Moore. But you never know. Of the previous members, more than a few have been, I believe the polite term is, characters. And as a sidebar, it might also be interesting to note that of the Presidents generally considered to be on the list of greats (e.g., Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, FDR and Reagan), none were ever Senators.
©MMXVII. William J. Lewis, III – Freelance Writer in Atlanta