Opinion: America is a gerontocracy

 Opinion: America is a gerontocracy

Sen. Dianne Feinstein gives remarks at the Capitol on February 1, 2022. Graeme Sloan/Sipa USA via REUTERS

America is a country primarily governed by old people. With “the graying of America,” leadership in public office seems to be getting even older. At the beginning of the 117th Congress, the average age for Representatives was 58 years. For Senators, it was 64 years. By age, this is the oldest Senate we’ve had in U.S. history. And though the word “Senate” translates to “Council of Elders,” how old is too old to legislate?

Born in 1937, the oldest Representative in the current Congress is Hal Rogers (R-KY) who is 84. The oldest Senator is Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), born in 1933, and is now 88. She was first elected in 1992 and is also California’s longest-serving U.S. senator.

Last week, the San Francisco Chronicle published a piece on Senator Feinstein, in which her colleagues expressed concern that she is now “mentally unfit to serve” and that her staff is doing much of the work. Various individuals, including four U.S. senators and three former staffers, told the Chronicle that “her memory is rapidly deteriorating” and “she can no longer fulfill her job duties” as a result of her alleged cognitive decline. She is currently serving her term through the end of 2024.

When the Chronicle’s Editorial Board spoke with Feinstein, she defended her job performance and said she won’t step down. “If Feinstein is mentally unfit, Democrats need to tell her openly. And she should resign,” the Editorial Board wrote.

Although Dianne Feinstein is the Senate’s oldest member, many of her fellow lawmakers are closer to 100 than they are to 50. At least four other senators serving alongside Feinstein are over 80. Senator Chuck Grassley (R–IA), who is also 88, is seeking reelection this year.

In Congress, being ancient is the norm. WIP Democracy helped us previously lay out the best arguments for reasonable term limits, and here are a few others.

At 100 years old, former governor and senator Strom Thurmond (R–SC), was the oldest-serving senator in U.S. history. He was in office from 1947 until his death in 2003. He also gave the longest single-person filibuster in U.S. history against the Civil Rights Act of 1957 — a record that still stands today.

The oldest person to have served in the House was Representative Ralph Hall (R–TX) who retired in 2015 at the age of 91. Last month, Representative Don Young (R–AK) died at 88. He was Alaska’s longest-serving congressman. First elected in 1973, he held his post for 49 years until his death — serving a total of 25 terms.

The longest-serving congressman in U.S. history was Representative John Dingell (D–MI) who served 59 years. In 2014, at age 87, Dingell announced he would not seek a 30th term. His wife, now Representative Debbie Dingell, successfully ran for his seat in 2014 and still holds it today. Let’s save nepotism in politics for another day. 

We can’t say we don’t live in a gerontocracy when the oldest senators are destined to become “president pro tempore” — defined by the U.S. Senate as, “a constitutionally recognized officer of the Senate who presides over the chamber in the absence of the vice president. The president pro tempore (or, “president for a time”) is elected by the Senate and is, by custom, the senator of the majority party with the longest record of continuous service.”

Though the role is ‘mostly ceremonial,’ if Democrats are able to maintain control of the Senate, Feinstein will likely become president pro tempore.

It’s not just Congress. You’ll notice a lot of older leadership — previously or currently serving without term limits — at all levels of our government.

  • At 79, President Joe Biden is the oldest president we’ve ever had. Prior to being VP alongside President Obama for 8 years, he served in the United States Senate for 36 years from 1973 to 2009.
  • At 82, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D–CA) is running for her 18th term. She was first elected in 1987 and first became Speaker of the House 16 years ago — previously from 2007 to 2011 and currently, since 2019.
  • At 88, Senator Chuck Grassley (R–IA) was first elected in 1980. If Democrats lose control of the Senate, he is next in line for president pro tempore.
  • Senator Jim Inhofe (R–OK) is 87 and has been in office since 1994.
  • Representative Bill Pascrell (D–NJ) is 85 years old and has been in office since 1997.
  • Former Representative Alcee Hastings (D–FL) was in office from 1993 until his death last year at 84.
  • Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D–NY) is 71.
  • Former President Trump is 75 years old.
  • Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D–TX) is serving her 15th term at 86.
  • Senator Richard Shelby (R–AL) is 87 and has been in office since 1987.
  • The list goes on… For more, read FiscalNote’s report on the age of every member of the 117th Congress.

Currently, 15 states have term limits for legislators. Term limits have been repealed in 6 states, with courts in four states finding term limits to be “unconstitutional.” As outlined in U.S. Term Limits, Inc. v. Thornton, 514 U.S. 779 (1995), the U.S. Supreme Court decided against U.S. Term Limits, ruling that “states cannot impose additional restrictions, such as term limits, on its representatives in the federal government beyond those provided by the Constitution.”

The problem with having elderly people running our government is that they tend to be more conservative and frankly, out of touch with the issues that affect everyday people. Many of us want to see significant changes in our political system, and so the argument for setting reasonable term limits is not at all unreasonable.

A majority of Americans (80%) support a Constitutional Amendment that would impose term limits on members of Congress.

Limiting the number of terms an elected official may serve would benefit democracy in general by helping to eliminate political dynasties and promote a more diverse and representative government. Term limits would provide new momentum and ideas to Washington, eliminate career politicians, and make room for fresh talent. It would also help break up this gerontocracy and make way for progressive policies that better reflect the needs of younger Americans — and ultimately, it may help to repair some of what’s wrong with our government.

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María Guillén

María Guillén

María is a writer, serial city dweller, and founder of Policybae. She's passionate about social justice advocacy, organizing action, and mobilizing change around sociopolitical issues. María holds a Master of Policy Management from Georgetown University and a dual degree in Public Relations and Communication Studies from Rowan University. Follow María on Twitter: @_mariaguillen

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