There are a lot of old people in Congress. The average senator is eligible to collect Social Security benefits. And while House members are slightly younger, the typical birth date still harkens back to an era when TV was mostly black-and-white and computers were made from vacuum tubes.
Those awaiting an infusion of youth may have to be patient. Earlier this month, 84-year-old Democratic Senator Diane Feinstein said she would seek reelection. Meanwhile, the oldest Republican, Chuck Grassley, will be 89 when his current term ends in 2022. At the start of this term, the Senate had 25 members with at least seven decades of life experience.
And while both parties have their share of septuagenarians, there is a clear difference when it comes to leadership. Republicans have promoted a number of fresh faces, including 47-year-old House Speaker Paul Ryan, while virtually the entire cast of Democratic congressional leaders are over 65.
One response to the graying of Congress is simply to say: good. Rule by a council of elders is an ancient political tradition, bound up with the idea that decision-making authority should be earned by long experience and slow-building wisdom. Not to mention that the whole country is aging, as the baby boomers hit retirement. It makes sense that Congress would be aging too.
But there are problems with gerontocracy, including some that may be delicate to raise but are nonetheless vital for the good of the country.
Like the risk of cognitive impairment — which is far from theoretical. Last month, a Washington, D.C., pharmacist said he has provided Alzheimer’s drugs to members of Congress.
Even leaving Alzheimer’s aside, there are other conditions that can impair brain functioning among advanced seniors. And many of those cognitive problems also affect decision-making, meaning that those who experience intellectual declines also lose the ability to assess their own competence. Which makes it hard to trust that aging lawmakers will know when to bow out.
What’s more, there’s also a problem of perspective. Issues of particular salience for seniors — like Medicare, Social Security, and savings rates — are liable to feel more pressing to a Congress whose members are also seniors. Whereas the big challenges facing younger Americans, like education and student debt, are bound to seem less personal, and often less pressing.
So where does that leave us?
Right now, those concerned about the advanced age of lawmakers have just one recourse: vote them out. But this is a pretty blunt instrument, because in many case voters know little about the actual mental and physical health of candidates. As a remedy, University of Chicago professor Harold Pollack recently suggested that all candidates for major office be given a thorough, independent health exam, with select results made public if they are deemed relevant to voters.
Term limits would seem another option, but they may not be effective. Today’s Congress is indeed quite old compared to predecessors, but it’s not because lawmakers are hanging around longer. In fact, the average tenure of today’s members is relatively low.
So you have to look elsewhere for the cause of congressional aging. Perhaps lawmakers are entering public life at a later stage, or it could be that voters are increasingly looking for older candidates. Against such forces, term limits have little power.
A more direct approach would be mandatory retirement, say at age 67 or 70. After that birthday, officials could serve out their term but not run again.
Mandatory retirement was a common part of economic life in the United States until the 1980s, when it was determined to be a form of age discrimination. But there are still some exceptions. Airline pilots must retire at age 65, air traffic controllers at 56. Maybe “writing the laws that bind us together as a nation” should count as a similarly demanding job, with the same urgent need to minimize age-related declines with mandatory retirement.
And it’s not like lawmakers forced into retirement would have to spend the rest of their lives knitting. They could work for businesses, nonprofits, lobbying firms — anywhere but Congress.
Perhaps this is all an overreaction. No doubt many of the seniors serving in Congress are more astute and clear-headed than the rest of us could ever hope to be, with a sager vision of the national good than younger folks have yet developed.
Yet, hearing that Alzheimer’s medications are being distributed on Capitol Hill — as the country wrestles with the novel political challenges posed by President Trump — suggests we may need some new rules to ensure that today’s aging lawmakers are truly capable of doing the people’s work.