A debate over age limits for politicians has re-entered the spotlight after some concerning moments on Capitol Hill.
In late July, 81-year-old Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell suddenly froze during a press conference and had to be escorted away.
A day later, 90-year-old Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, the oldest serving member of Congress, appeared confused during a committee hearing and was prompted by another senator to "just say aye" in order to vote.
It was the latest in a string of troubling incidents involving the California senator, who has been recovering from the shingles virus. On Aug. 4, Feinstein ceded power of attorney to her daughter.
Aging does NOT necessarily lead to cognitive decline, and we all age differently. But recent health concerns have renewed questions about whether lawmakers and political leaders should set maximum age limits as a precaution.
According to an NBC analysis, the current Congress is the second-oldest Senate and third-oldest House in American history. The median age for senators is 65, the highest on record. The median age for the House has hovered between 57 and 58, higher than any year before the past decade. At 78, President Biden was the oldest person to ever be sworn in to the Oval Office. Before him, Donald Trump held the record at age 70 during his inauguration.
There are age minimums to run for office: Representatives must be at least 25, Senators must be 30, and presidents must be 35 years old. The Baby Boomer generation is still overrepresented in Congress compared to the US population. Baby Boomers make up nearly half of Congress and a fifth of the U.S. population. Polling shows repeated bipartisan support for age limits: a YouGov poll in early 2022 found nearly 60% of Americans supported one, with a slightly larger preference from Republicans. An NPR-Morning Consult poll found that 41% of respondents said the age of political leaders was "a major problem".
Opponents of age limits say regularly scheduled elections allow voters to determine who is too old to hold office. There are a few possible reasons that may have contributed to the aging of the leadership.
The U.S. population has aged as well, and older voters are not only more likely to vote but more likely to vote for people from their own age group. According to a report from the Congressional Research Service, members of Congress are also more likely to seek reelection now than they were 70 or more years ago and win additional terms. Older members of Congress tend to have more accumulated cashflow due to years of fundraising.
In an interview with NPR, Insider Data Senior Editor Walt Hickey also argued that older candidates are also more likely to succeed in primaries during redistricting cycles.
There are rules in the U.S. House that can affect some aging members. Republicans have set term limits on committee leadership and chairmanships.
By contrast, the Democrats reward committee positions based on seniority. It's a practice that Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has critiqued on social media.
"If you are on a committee and want to chair it, you basically have to wait until almost everyone before you resigns or leaves office. That often takes decades," said Ocasio-Cortez. "Those who DID wait and are in leadership (or next in line for it) are incentivized to protect the automatic seniority system as much as possible because of their sunk time cost."
So, as political leaders grow older, should we expect to see changes to presidential or congressional age limits? Maximum age limits are used in certain other industries, including commercial pilots and the military, and some states impose mandatory retirement ages for judges.
But for federal politicians, age limits are considered unconstitutional. That reading reflects a 1995 Supreme Court ruling after Arkansas attempted to block potential candidates for the U.S. House who had already served three terms and block candidates for the U.S. Senate who had already served two terms. The Supreme Court reasoned that if the Framers wanted term limits or additional restrictions of any kind, they would have included them in the constitution.
"The door of this part of the Federal Government is open to merit of every description, whether native or adoptive, whether young or old, and without regard to poverty or wealth or to any particular profession of religious faith," said John Paul Stevens.
In addition to arguing that elections are the venue for determining who gets in and who does not, critics argue that term limits would rob Congress of the experience and deeper relationships used to build consensus and pass legislation. Maximum age limits are a controversial proposal for both presidential and congressional candidates since many politicians may be perfectly fit to serve well into old age and limits could perpetuate ageism.
Still, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that self-reported cognitive decline like memory loss and confusion impacts nearly 1 in 9 adults, increasing in rate as people age.
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