Congress is old as heck
Ketanji Brown Jackson hearings put spotlight on Senate's most elderly
Senate confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson are underway this week. Like most such event these are just for show — every senator already knows how they are going to vote, and those participating are mostly just using it as an opportunity to grandstand, maybe get some viral video they can use to rev their respective bases up.
One thing these hearings make apparent, however, is just how incredibly old the members of the Senate are. As journalist Aaron Rupar noted, the average age of the first five speakers at the hearing was 80 years. They included Democrat Dick Durbin (77), Republican Chuck Grassley (88), Democrat Pat Leahy (81), Republican Lindsey Graham (a sprightly 66), and Democrat Dianne Feinstein (88).
Grassley, for instance, was first elected to public office in 1959, during the Eisenhower administration. Bloomberg Senate reporter Steven Dennis pointed out that he’s been an elected official for more than one quarter of the time since the signing of the Declaration of Independence. His first day in office was closer in time to the 19th century (60 years) than it is to today (63 years).
California Senator Dianne Feinstein, as many have noted, was born the same year the Golden Gate Bridge was completed, and several years before the construction of the Hoover Dam.
In general, members of both the Senate and the House are older today than they ever have been. The average Senator is now 64, while the average House member is 59. Both chambers have added roughly a decade to their average age since the beginning of the 1980s, while overall life expectancies have increased by only five years. So you might say that the typical U.S. legislator today is closer to death than they were 40 years ago.
Legislator age differs by party too: the average congressional Democrat (61) is about three years older than the typical Republican (58). That may partly owe to Republican caucus rules that put term limits on the amount of time a member can serve as a committee chair: members who’ve held powerful positions may choose to retire or go into private industry rather than serve additional terms as a back-bencher.
The partisan differences are even more stark when you look at congressional leadership, which includes the Speaker of the House and various whips and majority/minority leaders: the average age of House Democratic leadership (71) is about 17 years older than the average among House Republican leaders (54).
It’s also instructive to consider the President, House Speaker and Senate Majority Leader together. These are arguably the three most powerful people in the country given their ability to set and approve legislative agendas in their respective domains. With some exceptions, like veto overrides, no legislation happens without the express approval of all three figures.
The average age of this legislative triumvirate has increased by a whopping quarter century since the mid-1990s. In 1995, for instance, President Bill Clinton was 49, House Speaker Newt Gingrich was 52, and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott was 55. Today, by contrast, President Biden is 79, Speaker Pelosi is 81, and Majority Leader Schumer is 71. If Republicans take the Senate and install Mitch McConnell as majority leader again, and if Nancy Pelosi continues on as Speaker, that would put the ages of all three figures above 80 for the first time.
In short, we’re becoming an increasingly gerontocratic nation: the old folks are running the show, particularly when it comes to setting the legislative agenda. This brings with it a whole lot of risks. There are questions of basic cognitive ability, particularly in the case of members like Dianne Feinstein. There’s the danger of weighting policy toward the interests of the elderly while leaving younger generations in the lurch — since the 1990s, for instance, Congress has funneled more government spending toward seniors, and less to children. People whose ideas about the world crystallized 30, 40 or 50 years ago may not be well-equipped to govern a society experiencing rapid technological, climatological and social change.
The issue appears to be most acute in the Democratic party, where the age gap between leadership and the rank-and-file is most extreme. The long reign of leaders like Pelosi, Steny Hoyer and James Clyburn has frustrated younger members — and voters — who worry that the party is increasingly stuck in the past, using the lessons of the 1980s to fight the political battles of the 21st century.