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Congress in Transition as Longtime Members Step Down

Age and seniority gave way in Congress on Thursday, a transformational shift for an institution where tremendous power has traditionally been built on sheer longevity, accumulated and savored with the passage of years.

The farewell speech of Sen. Ted Stevens, 85, a 40-year member, came on the same day that House Democrats deposed Rep. John D. Dingell, 82, a 53-year member, from his chairmanship. It was one of those moments when lawmakers could almost hear an era ending.

Not only Stevens and Dingell found themselves treated like old bulls put out to pasture. Sen. Robert C. Byrd, who turned 91 on Thursday and has amassed 56 years in Congress, had already voluntarily relinquished the chairmanship of his beloved Appropriations Committee before his colleagues could ease him out.

Waxman Replaces Dingell as Head Of Influential House Panel

Rep. Henry A. Waxman wrested the chairmanship of the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee from Rep. John D. Dingell on Thursday in a coup that is expected to accelerate passage of energy, climate and health legislation backed by President-elect Barack Obama.

Waxman, 69, who mounted a quiet but effective two-week campaign against his longtime colleague, won the chairmanship with a 137-122 vote in the Democratic caucus. The vote was secret, but many allies of Speaker Nancy Pelosi backed Waxman’s move, and several members said they voted on the assumption that Pelosi tacitly approved.

Democrats also read the signals coming from the president-elect’s transition office, which this week announced the intention to name Philip Schiliro, a longtime aide to Waxman, as the new White House director of congressional relations.

The takeover marked the fall of a third long-serving member of Congress in the last two weeks. Sen. Ted Stevens, 85, R-Alaska, first elected in 1968, lost his re-election bid after a federal fraud conviction. Sen. Robert C. Byrd, 91, D-W.Va., stepped down as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee last week.

Falling Crop Prices Hurting Farmers

The farmers said it would not last, and they were right.

When the price of wheat, corn, soybeans and just about every other food grown in the ground began leaping skyward two years ago, farmers were pleased, of course. But generally they refused to believe that the good times would be permanent. They had seen too many booms that were inevitably followed by busts.

Now, with the suddenness of a hailstorm flattening a field, hard times are back on the American farmstead. The price paid for crops is dropping much faster than the cost of growing them.

The government reported this week that the cost of goods and services nationwide fell by a record amount in October as frantic businesses tried to lure customers. While lower prices are good for consumers in the short run, a prolonged stretch of deflation would wreak havoc as companies struggled to stay afloat.

In this lonesome stretch near the Texas border, farmers are getting an early taste of a deflationary world. They have finished planting next year’s winter wheat, turning the fields a brilliant emerald green. But it cost about $6 a bushel in fuel, seed and fertilizer to put the crop in. That is $1 more than they could sell it for today, and never mind other expenses like renting land.