The Washington Post recently explained that, based on the number of octogenarians currently serving, this is the oldest U.S. Senate ever. It may feel like the Senate has always been full of wizened elders, but this is actually a very recent development:
For the Senate’s first 100 years, no one ever served into their 80s, according to Senate Historical Office data. Over the next 100 years, there were a few brief moments with two or three. Only 49 senators have ever turned 80 in office, and 15 of those came in the past 20 years.
It is not out of agism or generational warfare that I say this, but: This is not great.
It’s bad not just for political reasons—though there are some pretty major political differences between most Americans over 80 and those born in the decades following the Spanish Civil War—but because we have no idea how many of these people are actually still fit for office.
A recent STAT News profile of the official pharmacist to Congress contained the intriguing detail that prescriptions for medicines to treat Alzheimers are regularly filled on the hill. The pharmacist, probably having revealed more than intended, walked this back, unconvincingly. But we already know that some number of members of Congress aren’t well. With euphemism and at times deliberately vague language, Congressional reporters regularly tell us that certain aged lawmakers are suffering cognitive impairments of one kind or another.
John Conyers, 88, has been widely known to be suffering from diminished cognitive function for some time. In 2014, a primary opponent said of him: “The congressman is not all there.” This barely made headlines outside of Michigan, where it was treated as common knowledge, if a slightly uncomfortable subject. It was accusations of sexual harassment that finally forced his retirement, and it was only after those allegations came to light that the New York Times informed that nation that, in “recent years,” Conyers “has often appeared disoriented.”
Thad Cochran, who just turned 80 this month, has missed votes due to illness, voted incorrectly, and appeared “frail and disoriented,” according to Politico. It’s clear that he’s simply being led around by his aides and staffers, who are also carrying out his votes for him. He is the chair of the Appropriations Committee, one of the most powerful posts in Congress. Politico now reports that people expect him to leave Congress in January, but his office denies that, just as they deny the obvious truth of their boss’s frailty and incapacity.
It’s a Washington tradition to pretend, in the face of obvious evidence to the contrary, that a diminished and incapable lawmaker is, actually, Just Fine. It happened with Strom Thurmond and Robert Byrd, both of whom served in the Senate their 90s, though it’s unclear if either of them were aware of their feats of longevity.
This is absurd. To pretend your boss is fully capable when you and other staffers are doing all the actual work of being a senator or House member is to defraud your member’s constituents and the electorate as a whole. But it happens because the longer someone is in office, the more seniority and power they amass. This is sometimes used as an argument against forced retirement, but members of Congress unable to make their own decisions aren’t working for their constituents, they’re working for small armies of former staffers-turned-lobbyists who rely on their proximity to power to stay employed.
Yes, many people remain fully capable and sharp well into their 80s and 90s. It is also an inescapable fact that many people don’t. We have already seen that members of Congress who don’t are not surrounded by people willing to do the right thing and force those members to retire. There’s no way to design some sort of law or Congressional rule that would force out only those members whose cognitive functions degrade to a point that renders them unfit for office, because, as already happens, their staffs cover for them and blatantly lie to the public. They can’t police themselves, so it’s time for a mandatory Congressional retirement age.
The Constitution requires that House members be at least 25 years of age and senators 30. The Founders thought that with age came “greater extent of information and stability of character.” Those advantages are debatable, but if that’s the point of establishing the minimum age qualification, then the danger of an elected representative losing that information and stability justify establishing a maximum age.
I’d set it at 70. I’m open to arguments for 75. After that, go home. Please.