Washington is turning into a gerontocracy with an increasingly old and infirm Congress
In October of 1984, former US President Ronald Reagan, who was then an incumbent 73-year-old commander-in-chief, participated in the second presidential debate against his Democratic Party opponent Walter Mondale.
The president was asked about his age and mental fitness for office by the moderator, given that he was then the oldest president in history, and responded famously: “I want you to know that also I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”
This witty line, according to the Reagan Foundation, boosted his polls and helped cement his second term in office. It also helped normalize the fact that an American president could indeed be an elderly person, though, of course, it was revealed later that President Reagan suffered from Alzheimer’s disease during his presidency.
Donald Trump, and current President Joe Biden were both respectively the oldest presidents in American history. In fact, Biden is the first president to be 80 years old – and he recently stated that he would seek reelection in 2024, which would make him 86 by the time he completes his second term, if he wins that bid.
However, the issue of an aging and perhaps out-of-touch president has not been simply an issue with the executive branch of government. In fact, the last Congress convened, the 117th Congress, was the oldest in American history with an average age of 59 and close to a quarter over 70. It was led by former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi who was 82 years old by the time she left office in January 2023. The current 118th Congress is the third-oldest since 1789 with an average of 58 years old.
While the 117th Congress broke the trend of an increasingly greater share of members over the age of 70 years old, still, the 118th Congress is older than the average American – the median age of the country’s population is 38. This is even with the election of the first Gen Z member of congress, 26-year-old Florida Congressman Maxwell Frost, who won his seat last November.
All this raises questions over whether or not Congress can actually understand and tackle issues that are relevant to the typical American, i.e. people in their early middle age, and younger generations. There are also questions of whether there should be some age limit for members to actually be in Congress. After all, many argue, if there is a limit on young people and children participating in politics – shouldn’t there be an upper-age ceiling too?
It has been reported by Congressional insiders, including pharmacists, that the public would be surprised if they knew just how many of their representatives are prescribed medicine for dementia, which implies they are obviously not able to perform their mandate.
The example of 89-year-old California Senator Dianne Feinstein is salient. She has missed 58 votes, as of writing this piece, in the Senate over the last month because of illness and her advanced age. Because of the current composition of the Senate, President Biden cannot confirm any federal judges without all Democratic Party Senators present on the Judiciary Committee including Feinstein, which is jeopardizing the function of the judiciary branch. She has not given any indication of when she will return – but has stated she will not seek reelection.
California Congressman Ro Khanna weighed in on this issue. He said on Twitter, “It’s time for [Senator Feinstein] to resign. We need to put the country ahead of personal loyalty. While she has had a lifetime of public service, it is obvious she can no longer fulfill her duties. Not speaking out undermines our credibility as elected representatives of the people.”
The congressman elaborated on this in a formal statement, citing a recent opinion by a Texas federal judge, who was appointed by Donald Trump, that banned a key abortion drug in the US. He said that his party needs to be quick in appointing new judges to restore the balance of the courts and that Feinstein’s lack of attendance is jeopardizing civil rights and other issues. There’s also an ongoing ethics concern of Justice Clarence Thomas, which can’t be addressed with congressional subpoenas because Feinstein is out and her vote is required to issue one.
Of course, there are also other elected officials, such as 81-year-old Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders who are quick-witted and clearly able to perform their duties. He is also deeply in touch with younger generations and was a key inspiration and supporter of many of the younger members of Congress, including Congressman Maxwell Frost and others. So a blanket ban on elderly people in public office would not be fair. But it is clear that something needs to be done to level the playing field for younger generations in the US; provide them with fair political participation and end the American gerontocracy.
April 24, 2023 at 09:01PM