— Opinion —
It’s Time to End the D.C. Gerontocracy
Gerontocracy (noun) : rule by elders: specifically, a form of social organization in which a group of old men or a council of elders dominates or exercises control.
Two-hundred forty-five years.
Two-hundred forty-five years ago the Declaration of Independence was signed in Philadelphia during the Second Continental Congress. Two-hundred forty-five years also happens to be the cumulative ages of the current Speaker of the House (Nancy Pelosi), House majority leader (Steny Hoyer) and majority whip (Jim Clyburn).
All three of them, of course, have declared they are running for re-election no matter how calamitous the midterm elections turn out to be for their own party.
The Senate is now the oldest it has been in all of American history. Last year, The Washington Post noted, “Twenty-three members of the Senate are in their 70’s; only one is under 40. According to the Congressional Research Service, the average age of senators at the beginning of this year was 64.3 years—the oldest in history.”
My senator, Dianne Feinstein, turns 89 next month and has been the subject of a whisper campaign questioning her mental capacity to continue in the job. Charles Grassley, of Iowa, has been a senator for over four decades.
Elderly senators are not a new phenomenon, of course—Strom Thurmond ran for president in 1948 and, 53 years later, was not only still in office, but was actually third in line to the presidency as President Pro Tempore. Robert Byrd, of West Virginia, required two canes to walk and, towards the end of his career, needed a wheelchair to travel around the capital.
Joe Biden will be 82 years old at the end of his current term of office. He has already told President Obama he plans on running again in 2024. If Bernie Sanders had won the nomination and general election in 2020, he would have been 83 at the end of his first term. If Donald Trump pulls a Grover Cleveland and becomes the second non-consecutive two-term president in American history, he would be 82 at the end of his second term.
In the past seventeen years, three sitting members of the Supreme Court have died while still serving. In the aftermath of a stroke, William O. Douglas’s health was so imperiled his fellow justices decided he would no longer write opinions and even said they would refuse to count his vote if he was part of a 5-4 majority. At 80 and suffering from thyroid cancer, William Rehnquist unequivocally announced, “I want to put to rest the speculation and unfounded rumors of my imminent retirement. I am not about to announce my retirement.” John Paul Stevens was 90 when he finally decided to retire. Ruth Bader Ginsburg was 87 when she passed away, almost certainly attempting to serve until a Democrat president could replace her.
Yes, we have an age problem in our nation’s capital.
Essays bemoaning the advanced age of the United States Congress and Judiciary are all the rage these days—New York Magazine, The Atlantic, and The Washington Post have all published them recently. But it isn’t just the Senate.
It’s clear we have a holistic age problem in our system of government and it is present at the commanding heights of all three branches of government.
Don’t get me wrong. I have a deep and profound reverence for our elders, especially in the realm of political discourse. I’d much rather have the Pelosi-Hoyer-Clyburn trifecta running things in the House than “The Squad.” Henry Clay came out of retirement to help craft the Compromise of 1850 and avoid a premature Civil War. President Reagan was one of the most significant presidents of the 20th century and was also the oldest in history at the time.
Older representatives and senators tend to be humbler in their capacities, more generous towards their colleagues, and aware of the arduous but necessary task of coalition-building through brokering consensus. They are not engulfed by the braggadocio and balderdash required to make a splash on social media or cable news. I am even beginning to much prefer an elderly Jerry Brown to a spry Gavin Newsom.
In order for our institutions to function properly, they must be populated by public servants who are unencumbered by the ailments of advancing age. The essential problem with a gerontocracy is that, in the winter of life, a four or six or life term can translate into a public servant possessing far different capacities at the end of a term than at the beginning. It is not ageist to worry about President Biden’s capacity two years into the future. It is not ageist to believe, like Canada, Britain and Australia do, that judges should not be allowed to continue in their jobs in perpetuity, regardless of their mental or physical state.
The Founders were certainly concerned with age, but not old age, perhaps because they had achieved so much as young men. Jefferson penned the Declaration of Independence at thirty-three. Madison wrote the Virginia Plan when he was merely thirty-six years old and his collaborator on The Federalist Papers, Alexander Hamilton, was a buoyant thirty years of age at the Philadelphia convention. Teddy Roosevelt ascended to the presidency at the age of forty-two. In Federalist Paper 62, Madison argued that minimum age requirements would provide for a “stability of character.”
So, why were maximum age limits not discussed in Philadelphia?
Obviously, people didn’t live as long as they live today. It simply wasn’t an option for leaders to serve in office decades beyond the peak of their vitality.
But here is the real constitutional conundrum: notions of leadership and public virtue were wholly different during the genesis of the American republic. Overt political ambition was considered gauche and public service was supposed to be a temporary activity, not a way of life or career. Even those who clamored for power had to camouflage their ultimate aspirations in a veneer of oblique indifference. Madison had to beg Washington to chair the Constitutional Convention. Jefferson stepped back and let Madison take part in the party machinations that would eventually deliver TJ the presidency in 1800. Active campaigning was a prima facie disqualification for higher office.
Not so today.
No one pretends anymore. As much as normal people wonder why Pelosi, Feinstein, and Grassley don’t decide to spend more time with their grandchildren or take more Viking cruises, the modern reality is their thirst for political power often outweighs their capacity to effectively exercise it. Older congressmen and senators become far too reliant on staff to carry out their responsibilities. Supreme Court justices lean on their clerks. And in the case of President Biden, youthful and more progressive advisors clearly have many hands on the wheel of policymaking at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
There is a clear—admittedly undemocratic—solution at our disposal: amend the Constitution to set mandatory retirement ages for all three branches. What those ages should be and if they should differ from branch to branch is up for debate. Career politicians and lifetime appointees require an additional check on their power; a 28th amendment would be a logical and just measure to find a middle ground between pursuing a noble life of public service and endlessly indulging venal quests for power and position.
Jeremy S. Adams is the author of the recently-released Amazon best-selling book Hollowed Out: A Warning About America’s Next Generation. He has taught American civics for 24 years in Bakersfield, California and was the 2014 California Teacher of the Year (DAR). You can follow him on Twitter @JeremyAdams6.