Some have proposed age limits for elected officials amid concerns about America's gerontocracy.
But members of Congress young and old alike balk at the idea, suggesting alternative fixes.
Those include term limits, overhauling the seniority system, and fixing the campaign finance system.
Read more from Insider's "Red, White, and Gray" series.
Particularly in the past several years, the idea of setting some sort of age cap on public service — particularly when it comes to the presidency — has been entertained by op-ed writers, interrogated by pollsters, and even floated by long-shot political candidates as both a populist and technocratic solution to our contemporary frustrations with gerontocracy.
And if the US Constitution sets clear minimum age requirements not just for the presidency (35) but also for serving in the Senate (30) and the House (25), why wouldn't an upper age limit make sense as well?
"It seems like the de facto threshold for running for president is not 35, but 80," said Democratic Rep. Ritchie Torres of New York, who at age 34 can serve in Congress but can't yet serve in the nation's highest office.
Fresh polling by Insider and Morning Consult indicates that three in four Americans favor an age limit for members of Congress. More than four in 10 viewed the ages of political leaders as a "major" problem.
Mandatory retirement based on age is standard practice in other industries — most notably for air-traffic controllers, airplane pilots, and within the military. Age-related declines in vision and hearing, the ability to endure stress, and the increased risk of medical emergencies rank among the reasons.
But service ceilings aren't entirely alien to politics: Thirty-one states and the District of Columbia require state-level judges to retire when they reach a certain age, generally 70 to 75.
Nevertheless, Congress' youngest and oldest lawmakers seem to agree: An age limit is not on the table. Yet.
"I don't know how you do that. You would have to amend the Constitution?" asked Republican Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, who at 88 is among the Senate's most elderly lawmakers. "I think it depends on the person too, a lot of times. I've known some people sharp in their mid-90s."
Torres, too, said he'd "be against it," using the 82-year-old speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, as an example of an older lawmaker who by all accounts remains healthy and firmly in control of her caucus. "She is one of the sharpest people I've ever met in my life," he said. "She has a command of the institution."
That doesn't mean Torres doesn't see a problem.
"I'm concerned that politics has become a gerontocracy," he said. "If I become a shadow of my former self, then it's time for me to go. There's something to be said for exiting gracefully."
The more immediate problem, according to lawmakers critical of the gerontocratic nature of American politics, is that the country's oldest politicians have not just the incentive to stick around but the power to remain entrenched. And it is those mechanisms — the seniority system, a campaign-finance system that favors incumbents, gerrymandered congressional districts, and the ability to continue to seek office indefinitely — that members of Congress are most eager to discuss.
"More important than those constitutional limits," said Democratic Sen. Jon Ossoff of Georgia, the youngest member of the Senate at age 35, "are the various structural impediments in our political system as it functions today that deter, and make it so difficult, and discourage young people from seeking office."
What's in an age limit?
The arguments in favor of limiting the country's oldest people from serving in public office involve a series of distinct concerns: that younger people need to be better represented in politics, that humans typically experience cognitive and physical decline with age, and that with both technological innovation and societal change, it's simply time for a new generation with more intimate knowledge of these issues to be given the chance to lead.
And the advanced age of the country's top political leadership is striking, particularly when viewed through the lens of history.
Joe Biden, at 79, is the oldest president in US history. Pelosi is the oldest House speaker, at 82. The person third in line to the presidency is the 82-year-old Democratic Sen. Pat Leahy of Vermont, the president pro tempore of the Senate. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer is 83, while House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn is 82. The majority and minority leaders of the Senate — Chuck Schumer and Mitch McConnell — are 71 and 80.
Washington's power class is also aging across the board; the current Congress is the oldest in the nation's history. At the start of the latest Congress, in January 2021, baby boomers controlled roughly 56% of the seats in both chambers despite representing approximately just 21% of the US population. And the median age of the Senate is about 64, while the median age in the House is about 58.
"I'm turning 64," Democratic Sen. Tina Smith of Minnesota noted in a tweet earlier this year. "Or as we like to call it in the Senate: middle-aged."
—Senator Tina Smith (@SenTinaSmith) March 4, 2022
As it stands, age is one of just three constitutionally enumerated requirements for serving in Congress or the White House — the other two pertain to citizenship and state residency.
Generally speaking, these requirements were based on a belief that one had to reach a certain age to have the maturity to fulfill the duties of the office.
Arguing for a minimum age of 25 to serve in the House, George Mason — one of Virginia's delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 — said his "political opinions at the age of 21 were too crude and erroneous to merit an influence on public measures."
Noting the "more advanced age" required of senators versus representatives, James Madison, it is believed, argued in the unsigned Federalist No. 62 that the "nature of senatorial trust" required a "greater extent of information and stability of character," and that age 30 represented a "period of life most likely to supply these advantages."
"Those who drafted the Constitution had sound reasons to set the minimum standards for various federal offices, you know?" said Ossoff, who became eligible to run for president just this year. "I've not given thought to whether any reevaluation of those limits is called for."
But the potential for inexperience in youth is different from the negative consequences of aging, and those consequences certainly aren't uniform.
James Chappel, an associate professor at Duke University who researches the topic of aging, has warned that seeking to sweep aside older elected officials purely by virtue of their age is not just ageist, but misguided.
"If it's true that what you're trying to test for is a kind of mental acuity, controlling for age is not a good way to do that," Chappel told Insider. "There are plenty of people who are younger than Joe Biden who are way dumber than him."
"The 85-and-up population is really going to skyrocket in the 21st century," he added. "And just as that community is growing, we are going to ensure that they aren't represented in Congress?"
Some lawmakers aren't willing to discuss age caps in Congress.
Asked about age limits by Insider at the Capitol, the 34-year-old Republican Rep. Peter Meijer — a man known for facing down tough political questions — demurred.
"That's probably more than just something I want to offer a little quip on, off the floor," he said.
Beyond normative arguments about the wisdom of such a change, it's also exceedingly difficult, almost certainly requiring an amendment to the Constitution.
First, either two-thirds of both the House and the Senate would have to approve it, or 34 states would have to call for a constitutional convention. Then, 38 state legislatures would have to approve the change.
'Tenure yields power yields tenure'
While no lawmaker ventured to endorse age limits in interviews with Insider, many reflected on an underlying system that prioritizes tenure and seniority over other potential measures of political acumen, generating a political leadership that skews older.
"Congress itself is a gerontocracy," Torres said. "It's an institution that prioritizes seniority to the exclusion of everything else."
Under the so-called seniority system, members of Congress are able to gain power simply by remaining in office; their standing within such a hierarchy is dependent solely on the length of their tenure. Seniority is used to determine who gets first choice at offices and, more important, who gets to chair committees.
Seniority itself isn't necessarily a negative attribute; over time, members may develop institutional knowledge and close working relationships that allow them to be more effective legislators.
To that point: Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, who just turned 89 years old and has served in the US Senate for 41 years, touted in a recent ad that he would have the "most seniority in the entire Senate" if reelected.
"That's priceless for Iowa," the ad intones. "It's easier to fight the rising cost of living when you have clout."
But that system can also lead to certain perverse incentives, including remaining in office even amid obvious signs of mental decline.
Earlier this year, a former staffer of Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, 89, remarked in an interview with The Cut that having the "diminished" senator representing California was "better than a junior" senator.
"Every other state benefits from California not having seniority, because our appropriations are so much larger," Jeffrey Millman, another aide who served as her 2018 campaign manager, told the outlet.
"Puppies have a nap. Now it's time for you to have one," fellow Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts reportedly told Feinstein with a chuckle in August.
It's a system that Congress' best-known young lawmaker — Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, who's 32 — has spoken about on her widely viewed Instagram account.
"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," she wrote in a post on June 18. "That often takes decades."
"So people wait. And wait. And wait," she continued. "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."
Speaking at the Capitol, Ocasio-Cortez told Insider it was "important for us to figure out perhaps a better way of determining who should lead a committee, beyond who's been here longest."
And there's an asymmetry between the parties when it comes to the seniority system; Republicans, unlike Democrats, impose six-year term limits for chairmanships and ranking members.
"We're considerably younger than the Democrats, by the way," Republican Rep. Don Bacon, 59, of Nebraska told Insider. He praised his party for enacting the limits, pointing out that it "creates a bit of a turnover." And he joined others in pushing back on age limits.
"I think Chuck Grassley does a pretty darn good job," he said. "I think in the end the voters should be able to choose, and if they think someone is too old, then they can make that choice."
The support for term-limiting leadership positions and committee chairs exists in both parties, with some Democrats trying in vain to limit Pelosi's tenure in 2018. Republicans, more recently, have expressed interest in instituting committee term limits beyond just their party.
But aside from the power amassed within the halls of the US Capitol, the power of incumbency in one's home district can often ensure that upstart candidates have a hard time mounting a credible challenge to those longtime incumbents.
"Tenure yields power yields tenure," said Ossoff, referring to the campaign-finance system, partisan gerrymandering, and the centralization of power within party apparatuses.
"Some of the same dynamics that drive partisan polarization also make the political system less competitive," he added. "Those sorts of anticompetitive dynamics can make it more difficult for younger candidates to get a shot."
'The principle of democracy is taking turns'
In the absence of an age cap, term limits offer another potential solution, though that too would require going through the arduous constitutional-amendment process.
The history of the contemporary movement for term limits largely dates back to the early 1990s, when dozens of states enacted term limits not just for their own legislatures but for their federal representatives in Washington.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich made the idea a core pillar of his "Contract with America" in 1994, and a majority of House members even voted 227-204 for a constitutional amendment that would have imposed 12-year limits on members of Congress — six two-year terms for House members, two six-year terms for senators — though that fell short of the necessary two-thirds majority necessary to begin the process.
That same year, the Supreme Court — which has no age or service limits — ruled that states couldn't impose requirements on their representatives that are more strict than those laid out in the Constitution, overturning federal term-limit laws passed by 23 states.
Nonetheless, the idea continues to have significant currency on the right, including some daring conservatives who in fact hope to hold a constitutional convention for those very purposes.
Republican Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri, the Senate's second-youngest member, at 42, suggested that term limits could ameliorate concerns about aging public servants.
"I think that would do it," he told Insider. "You know, once you've served two or three, especially three, terms in the Senate, that's a long time."
While Republicans, generally antagonistic toward the federal government, have generally been quick to affirm their support for the idea, Democrats have not. But if frustration with gerontocracy continues to mount, there's some evidence that the idea could gain broader support within the party.
"Put it this way: I'm a little more interested in term limits than age limits," Democratic Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland told Insider.
He noted the existence of term limits on the presidency, while quipping that his openness to the idea might make him a "pariah" within the party.
"There's a logic to term limits, because the principle of democracy is taking turns," Raskin, 59, said.
And Torres squarely blamed the lack of term limits for the gerontocracy of which he spoke, though he stopped short of endorsing the idea. "If there were to be term limits, the legislature certainly should have more terms than the executive," he offered.
But the pull of tenure is strong, even for those who have voted for term limits. Grassley, who voted in favor of term limits in 1991 and 1993, told Insider he still supported the idea even while running for reelection this November: "Yes, I would vote for it again."
And McConnell, the longest-serving Republican leader in Senate history, also voted in favor of term limits both times.
'Everybody has to make their own decision'
Perhaps the most important force driving anxieties about gerontocracy, particularly for the young, is a greater desire for political power. And Pelosi is said to have her own adage on how that power changes hands.
"Nobody's going to give it to you," she says. "You've got to take it."
Even Torres noted that alongside his desire for new "opportunities for a new generation of public servants," there were signs of younger generations beginning to dislodge incumbents.
"We're living in a time where incumbency is no longer an insurance policy against primary challengers," he said. "In order to be a member of Congress, even in a safe district, you have to be on the top of your game."
And being on top of one's game is a challenge that the oldest Americans, for better or for worse, are largely continuing to meet. Grassley, though often reliant on staff members for assistance, recently completed his annual 99-county tour of Iowa as he seeks his eighth term in the Senate.
By contrast, Shelby — nearly as old as Grassley, decided to retire this year, and will most likely be replaced by a woman less than half his age. "Senate gets older? Well, it's going to get younger when I leave," he quipped to Insider.
"I've chaired four committees. I've had a good run," he said, explaining why he made what he called the "mature" decision to step down. "I said, I want to walk out of here while I know who I am."
"So everybody has to make their own decision," he added.
And while former President Jimmy Carter, who's nearly 98, once casually suggested an age limit because he couldn't undertake presidential duties even if he were "just 80 years old," others may reach a different conclusion.
"It's fair to ask about anything that's reasonable, including age," said Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent, who just turned 81 this month.
But it's a politician's views on policy that are most important, Sanders said.
"Because somebody is young, because somebody is old, or whatever they may be, it is not a reflection of their views on the issues," he said.
In Feinstein's view, arguing against an age limit is ultimately a matter of fairness.
"I've had a lot of life and I've seen a lot of people die very young, and so I think age is just something that you contend with," Feinstein told Insider.
"No, I don't," she replied when asked whether an age limit might be prudent. "This has always been an open place, and it should stay that way."
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