From NPR: "After McConnell's and Feinstein's episodes, should age limits be on the table?" in Those Public Entries

  • July 31, 2023, 6:08 p.m.
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Can someone be too old to hold office?

That age-old question was front and center last week after awkward episodes from two of the oldest members of the U.S. Senate.

On Wednesday, Sen. Mitch McConnell, 81, abruptly froze for over 30 seconds during his weekly news conference. A day later, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, 90, had to be reminded by a colleague to “Just say, ‘Aye’ ” while casting her vote for the military budget.

Both incidents were brief, but chances are they won’t be the last. The median age of U.S. senators is 65 — a record high — while the median age of representatives in the House is 58. In the White House, President Biden, 80, is the oldest president elected in U.S. history, and he hopes to remain in office until 86.

People age at different rates, but concerns over life expectancy and mental fitness will likely keep resurfacing as Congress gets older and there are few legal options to address gerontocracy.

Why do we have an age minimum but not an age maximum to hold office?

Maximum age limits are considered unconstitutional. Part of the reason that’s true dates back to 1995. At the time, Arkansas attempted to deny ballot access to prospective U.S. representatives who had already served three terms and prospective U.S. senators who had already served two terms.

That case was argued in front of the Supreme Court in U.S. Term Limits, Inc. v. Thornton. The court ruled that the Framers could have created term limits for lawmakers in Congress but chose not to, suggesting that they did not intend for term limits to be part of the Constitution.

The same could be argued against maximum age limits, according to Jeremy Paul, who teaches at Northeastern University School of Law.

“Whether you’re talking about adding term limits or whether you’re talking about a maximum age, you’re still changing the qualifications that are set out in the Constitution,” Paul said.

Could there be age limits in the future for politicians in Washington?

The military, commercial pilots and, in some states, judges all follow a mandatory age for retirement. But imposing an age limit for the president or lawmakers serving in Congress would be a much harder lift.

Essentially, it would require Congress to add a new amendment to the Constitution. Doing so generally requires the support of two-thirds of both chambers of Congress, as well as three-quarters of the state legislatures. The last time Congress added an amendment was over 30 years ago.

Even if there was widespread support for setting a retirement age, Paul said it would be a complicated feat to settle on what age that should be.

“Whatever age you pick, there will be arbitrariness to it,” he said.

Why do we keep electing older adults?

In elections, age does not tend to play a big, decisive role, according to Damon Roberts, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Colorado Boulder who has researched whether voters prefer older or younger candidates.

In an online survey with 1,000 respondents, Roberts found that both young and older people were equally supportive of a 23-year-old candidate, a 50-year-old candidate and a 77-year-old candidate — even if they believed stereotypes that old age is associated with forgetfulness and closed-mindedness.

Instead, a candidate’s political party, race, gender and where they stood on specific issues held more sway.

“We have other things that are really salient in American politics that people use quite strongly to base their voting decisions off,” Roberts said.
The case for and against term limits

For some, being a senator or representative in Congress is a full-time career. That can be a good or bad thing, according to Northeastern University’s Paul.

Some argue that term limits are the best way to address gerontocracy. With more turnover comes new ideas and a chance to challenge the status quo in Washington.

But critics say multiple terms help elected officials gain institutional knowledge and build relationships needed to become more effective in passing legislation. Paul said that seniority also plays a major role on Capitol Hill and that longtime lawmakers in Congress tend to be more influential in their party, as well as lead important committees.

“There’s really no substitute for experience,” Paul said.

In the first place: I loathe, despise, and all-around hate any “but dah Constitution says such and such, and we can’t change it” arguments. Why? Because the Constitution is a living document. The Framers and Founding Fathers intended for the Constitution to be revised, amended, and updated on a regular basis. They would be horrified to see “originalist” arguments and how deeply entrenched they are. So yes, Jeremy Paul, we are talking about changing something about the Constitution, but it’s been done before (Amendments 1 through 28, anyone?) and the Founders intended for us to do it more often.

In the second place: Should there be a maximum age for elected officials? Yes. One hundred thousand fucking percent, yes. Joe Biden should be retired and enjoying the company of his grandchildren, including the one he just now deigned to acknowledge. (Yes, I voted for Biden. No, I’m not ride or die for him. I just couldn’t stomach the idea of another four years of the Orange Shitgibbon. I still can’t.) And of course, Mitch has a Glitch, which is that he’s 81 years old and decomposing before our eyes. Dianne Feinstein, Bernie Sanders, Chuck Grassley, Nancy Pelosi, everyone else on this list, everyone in both the House and the Senate who’s over 65, all of them need to retire like NOW.

If it’s ever seemed to you like Congress is wildly out of touch with the average American, look again at the average age of House members (58) and Senators (65). Whereas the largest voting bloc in the country are Millennials, who are between 27 and 42 years old. Congress seems out of touch because it is out of touch; Millennials hold only 31 seats in the House and 1 in the Senate, compared to Boomers, who hold 230 seats in the House and 68 in the Senate. The largest voting bloc isn’t being adequately represented, and it’s largely because Boomer Representatives and Senators are refusing to retire. (That singular Millennial in the Senate? Jon Ossoff, Democrat from Georgia.)

There is not one single reason anyone over 65 should be running the country. If you’re over 65, you’ve earned the right to retire. Spend your twilight years traveling, spend them with your family, do all the shit your 20, 30, and 40-year-old selves wanted but didn’t have time for.

As for the idea that “there’s no substitute for experience”? Yeah, that’s true, but look at the experience these dinosaurs are bringing with them. Most of the oldest members of Congress have no idea how much the average price of housing is right now. Most of them have no idea how much a car costs, or what the price of gas per gallon is on average. Most of them think that the average income in this country is about $250k. Most of them have no idea how badly inflation is affecting people, because they don’t think inflation is affecting people. Their cost index is based on information from the 1980s. I don’t want to keep living in a country that’s being run by people who think life in 2023 costs the same as it did in 1988.

Just… If you can retire, do it. Stop with this gray ceiling bullshit. (For the unawares: The “gray ceiling” generally refers to the phenomenon of Gen X and Millennial employees not being able to advance in their careers due to Boomers refusing to retire.)

Of course, this rapidly-ageing government of ours could go in a completely different direction. In her 2013 memoir, Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking, Anya von Bremzen states that by the 1980s, the average age of Politburo members was 70, and that Russians quickly started referring to the first half of the decade as the “Five-Year, Three-Coffin Plan,” due to the rapid-succession deaths of Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov, and Constantin Chernenko, leading to Gorbachev taking the top job. We all know how that turned out. //grabs the popcorn//

Last updated July 31, 2023

Deleted user July 31, 2023

Although a Boomer, I agree. I was lucky to be forced into retirement before the factory killed me. An assumption that age=wisdom by some is pure bullshit. I think Whitmer would make a great president (oops, forgot to check her age). Same with Newsome. But there you see my liberal bias. The infirmities you see in some leaders on occasion are probably nothing compared to what we do not see. Ok back to my rocking chair and shuffleboard and drooling while napping. And hey you kids! Get off my lawn! (A lot of dogs shit on it!)

fjäril July 31, 2023

I totally think that there should be age limits for elected officials. I mean, come on, 90 years old? My grandmother is about to turn 95 and all of her similarly aged friends are dead, her closest friend is still her her younger 80s, leaving at least fifteen years between them. I question if their mental capacity is all there, because I know that my grandmother has been forgetting things for the last several years though thankfully nothing too severe yet. plus their physical health, there are always report that such and such elderly elected official fell or stumbled, so of course the opposing party makes it into a huge thing to question their fitness for politics. but they're not wrong either, I really do not believe that those older than 60 should hold office - and while we're at it, I want term limits for those in Senate and Congress!

music & dogs & wine July 31, 2023

👏🏻👏🏻👏🏻 I could not agree more with everything you said! I wonder all the time why there is no age limit. It's ridiculous!

lessoff August 01, 2023

we need some younger peeps to step up. and the orange cheeto needs to go wherever cheetos go that doesnt involve being the president.

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