Should there be an age limit on public service?

August 4, 2023 6:20 pm

U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, in December 2021. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Senate Leader Mitch McConnell’s brain freeze moment along with Senator Dianne Feinstein’s faux pas in an Appropriations hearing last week has once again ignited the so-called “ageism” debate in the national discussion.

How old is too old to serve? Particularly in positions of national leadership?

The US Constitution, of course, has long established the minimum ages of 30 for US Senator, and age 25 for US Representative, both of which seem ridiculously low in this day and age.

Then again, the Constitution is 236 years old, and was written when the average life expectancy was 42 years.  Today, it is closer to 78 years old.

In many jobs, including some federal jobs, the mandatory retirement age is 65.  McConnell is 81. Feinstein is 90.  And for the record, President Joe Biden is 80, and GOP front-runner Donald Trump is 77.

The Senate’s average age is 64, compared to the House’s 57. Congress is nearly half baby boomers, despite the same age group making up 21% of the U.S. population.

There has long been a resistance to term limits in the United States, although we have them for governors, state representatives and other officials.

People like McConnell and Feinstein get in, get reelected, and then reelected again and again and again, and before you know it, you have both of them stumbling around in the public halls of power, seemingly limited by only potential death itself.

For all the talk of “Vote them out,” the statistical facts are that this rarely happens.  Incumbent Congressmen and Senators are returned to power 92% of the time, which means they have better job security than most of us.

The Founding Fathers, from what I’ve read, never intended for “Congress” to be either full-time jobs or life-time careers, yet McConnell was first elected to the Senate in 1984. That was 40 years ago.

Feinstein was elected to the U.S. Senate in a 1992 special election, and she has been reelected five times, which you multiply by six-year terms.

And the Senate is full of other McConnells and Feinsteins: For example, Chuck Grassley (1981). Patty Murray (1993), Ron Wyden (1996), Dick Durbin (1996), Jack Reed (1997), Susan Collins (1997), Chuck Schumer (1999) and Mike Crapo (1999) were all first elected during the last century, and all are still serving today.

Even John Boozman of Arkansas came into the Senate with a class of eight others in 2011 after he had already served 9 years in the House.

All of these folks are the epitome of “Career Politician” and short of impeachment or death, there is literally no way to get any of these people out. Feinstein, for example, literally moves around by being pushed in a wheelchair for goodness sake.  Does she really need to be there?

Recent polling suggests that most Americans would like to see some age limit on all politicians and Supreme Court justices.  The most typical limit would be age 75, which would be still 10 years past the traditional retirement age of 65.

But, even that is changing, as to get full Social Security benefits, one now has to be 67 or older.

And, if there were term limits, say three Senate terms or 18 years of service, half of these folks would be long gone as they should be.

However, it would take a Constitutional Amendment to make something like that happen.

And the chances of that happening are much worse than that 92-percent job return rate of Congress.

This opinion piece first appeared in The Helena World in Helena- West Helena, Ark., and is reprinted by permission.

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Rick Kennedy
Rick Kennedy

Rick Kennedy is a columnist and reporter for the Helena World in Helena West Helena and the Monroe Argus in Brinkley, Arkansas. He has 40 years of journalism experience in Arkansas, California, and the Pacific Northwest.