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Our aging Congress is one of the oldest in history

Should there be term limits for members of the U.S. Congress? Gregory Koger, professor of political science and director of the George P. Hanley Democracy Center at the University of Miami, weighs in.
Exterior view of Congress at sunset

The 118th United States Congress is one of the oldest in this country’s history.

When Democratic California Sen. Diane Feinstein recently announced that she would not run for office in 2024, she will give up the spot as the oldest to serve in Congress – at age 89—to Chuck Grassley, a Republican representing Iowa, who is 56 days younger than Feinstein and was reelected in 2022.

Feinstein will leave behind several other octogenarian colleagues, including Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who at 81 years old recently had a fall that required hospitalization; Democrat House Majority whip Jim Clyburn, who is also 81 years old; Steny Hoyer, the longest serving Democrat, who is 82 years old; and Democrat Nancy Pelosi, former Speaker of the House, who is 82.

Although some appear to be physically and mentally fit for the job, the aging of Congress has sparked debate, in news reports, that the congressional body may be out of touch with the rest of society—and like in Feinstein’s case, many of its members may be too old and feeble mentally to tackle the job.

There are several reports that in the last few years Feinstein suffered from cognitive decline and would often forget details of her last meetings.  

Unlike U.S. presidents, who can serve only for two terms, members of Congress can remain in office indefinitely. Feinstein has been in office for 30 years. Republican Strum Thurmond served as the longest running congressman, representing South Carolina in the Senate from 1954 to 2003. 

Gregory Koger, professor of political science at the University of Miami College of Arts and Sciences and director of the George P. Hanley Democracy Center, weighs in on the current makeup of Congress, which is on recess until April 17.

Why do we see such an elderly body of Congress?

I don’t think voters are consciously choosing older members of Congress. If that were the case, we would see newly elected members of Congress in their late 70s, 80s and 90s. Instead, people get elected in their 40s and 50s, and then it is hard to dislodge them from office.

They have real advantages within their parties to getting re-nominated and if they are in a district that is relatively safe, then the other party may have a hard time getting them out of office.

What are some of the advantages of having older elected officials in Congress?

Absolutely, there are many benefits to experience. Legislators need to understand politics, policy issues, and the legislative process, and each of these is complex. There are real advantages to having experienced legislators who have accumulated experience on these topics. But, at some point there are limits to those advantages.

In extreme cases, there are congresspersons who experience cognitive decline. For example, the San Francisco Chronicle ran an article claiming that Sen. Diane Feinstein has experienced cognitive decline and really should not be in office anymore. This article may have prompted her to not run again in 2024 but, for now, she is still in office.

In addition, some officeholders may be cognitively capable, but they have been in that political world for so long that they do not understand the daily lives of their constituents. They interact with their own staff, other legislators, lobbyists, and donors, but they become disconnected from their constituents. So, there can be a real benefit to have some turnover in office so voters are represented by people who understand their daily lives.   

Should there be an imposed age for retirement, as is common in other jobs? For instance, airline pilots must retire at age 65?

I am not crazy about picking a number because if the issue is cognitive decline, then that can begin at different ages for different people. A better solution would be for all members of Congress to have annual or biannual cognitive tests and then the results should be made public.

Once the results are shared, then let the parties and voters decide it they want to re-elect somebody who is experiencing problems.

Do you believe that there are some issues that an older person cannot relate to, and a younger person would be better suited to tackle in Congress?

Generally, over the last 15 years Internet-related policy issues have been difficult for the oldest members of Congress to understand. Relatedly, the regulation of social media has been difficult for some members of Congress as well. There are older members who are active on social media but it is more common that the younger members would be more familiar with social media.

Sometimes, age differences are also about having different generational perspectives. If you are in your 80s now then you came of age with John F. Kennedy and the space race, Watergate, and Vietnam, and maybe your politics were deeply affected by the election of Ronald Reagan. Your political socialization is different than someone whose first political event was 9/11 and who has spent most of their adult life in this millennium. They may have a different perspective on foreign policy issues and domestic security.

Should there be term limits for legislators, such as that of the U.S. president, who can only run for two terms?

There are no term limits for members of Congress. That has been debated a great deal.

I am not enthusiastic about term limits because when there are term limits it gives a great deal of more influence to the other players in the legislative process like legislative staff, lobbyists, and interest groups. If there is so much turnover that politicians are constantly being kicked out, then it weakens Congress as an institution. Rather than have term limits I would change our political process so that Congressional elections are more competitive.

Instead, I would recommend changing our campaign finance system so that it is easier for challengers to raise money. It would make sure that incumbent legislators would face a real contest every time they run for office. This would allow someone to make a real case against every incumbent and try to convince voters that it is time for a change.