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Eldest Statesman Has Seen Big Changes

As the adage goes, “With age comes wisdom.”

If that saying rings true, then Rep. Ralph M. Hall, R-Texas, may well be “the wisest man to have served in the House of Representatives,” as Hall’s Texas colleague Lamar Smith said on the House floor Nov. 27.

On that day, Hall officially became the oldest member of the House ever to cast a vote, a milestone celebrated by dozens of his colleagues, who rose to honor him in a series of one-minute speeches.

Hall, 89, broke the record previously set in September 1930 by Rep. Charles Manly Stedman of North Carolina, who died in office at the age of 89 years, 4 months and 25 days. (South Carolina Republican Sen. Strom Thurmond is the oldest ever to serve in Congress and the only senator to continue serving past his 100th birthday.)

“If there were a congressional hall of fame, tonight would be Rep. Hall’s induction as the oldest — some would say the most seasoned — voting member in the House of Representatives,” Smith said.

In honor of the record-setting achievement, the House accepted a portrait that features Hall with his late wife, Mary Ellen, who died in 2008. Hall is wearing a space shuttle pin on his lapel, representing the longtime Science Committee member’s commitment to the space program.

A Long History of Service

First elected to Congress in 1980 at age 57, after a three-decade career in state and local politics, Hall has seen the institution change dramatically. And he has been forced to adapt to those changes in many ways, including switching political parties in order to hold onto his seat.

He began his congressional career as a conservative Southern Democrat, one of the original Boll Weevils who often sided with President Ronald Reagan on tax and budget matters and were frequently at odds with their increasingly liberal party brethren.

In the mid-1980s, he voted “present” rather than cast a vote for Massachusetts Democrat Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill for speaker. Such protest votes have become somewhat common these days, but were virtually unheard of back then.

But the leadership, happy just to have the district, much of which was once represented by legendary Speaker Sam Rayburn, never struck back. “I do what I have to do, and they do what they have to do,” Hall said at the time.

As the number of Southern Democrats declined through the Reagan and Bush years — then took a sharp dive in 1994, when the Republican Revolution earned the GOP the majority for the first time in 40 years — Hall continued to stick with the party of his ancestors, those Texans who would rather vote for a yellow dog than a Republican.

A year later, in 1995, he was one of the founding members of the now-denuded Blue Dog Coalition, and he continued deviating from the party line — Hall sided with Republicans more often than any other Democrat.

Finally, in 2004, after a decade of speculation that he would bolt the party, Hall switched sides under the pressures of redistricting, when a midterm map change left him with an even more conservative constituency than he already had.

He ended up winning re-election as a Republican and has been a reliable GOP vote ever since. Unlike the days when he would post party unity scores (the percentage of votes on which he sided with a majority of Democrats against a majority of Republicans) in the 40s, Hall is now a reliable vote for the GOP more than 90 percent of the time.

In 2010, he joined the House Tea Party Caucus, along with a dozen or so other members of the Texas delegation.

Not Ready to Retire

At 89, Hall is used to hearing about how he’s too old to be effective.

So, in May, after being attacked along those lines by a primary challenger, Hall decided to skydive to prove his sprightliness.

“I run a couple of miles every morning, and when I was running, I looked up and there was an airplane up there. I thought, if I could jump up and touch that airplane, they’d think I was agile enough maybe to keep on being their congressman,” Hall said in a speech on the House floor. “If running two miles every morning, voting 99-plus percent of the time, if that wasn’t enough, I had to do something else. So I decided if I jump two miles, maybe that would be it.”

Hall won the primary, and in November he cruised to victory in the general election, becoming the oldest person ever elected to a House seat.

Among all the demographic changes that have taken place in Congress over the decades, perhaps one best illustrates the evolution of Hall’s career.

When he took office in 1981, Hall was one of 125 World War II veterans serving in the House, according to a Congressional Research Service analysis of data from the American Legion. Today, Hall and Rep. John D. Dingell, D-Mich. — the next-oldest House member at 86 — are the only members of “the greatest generation” still serving in the House. There are three in the Senate, all Democrats: Frank R. Lautenberg of New Jersey and Daniel K. Inouye and Daniel K. Akaka of Hawaii.

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