Views expressed in opinion columns are the author’s own.
Whether you’re in tune with American politics or not, there’s a good chance you’ve seen the recent videos of U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell freezing in front of reporters and Sen. Dianne Feinstein confusing a committee vote with a debating period.
Like most Americans, my confidence in Congress is low — and these geriatric episodes just make it worse. It’s sad to watch politicians who have built impressive legacies quickly tarnish their reputations with unfortunate gaffes.
The aging trend not only erodes the efficacy of our legislative process, but it raises legitimate concerns about the ability of our aging representatives to address today’s pressing issues.
To maintain cognitively sound and effective leadership, Congress needs to enact term limits and a mandatory age of retirement for its members.
First, it’s important to highlight the current Congress’s age demographics. The average member of the House of Representatives is about 58 years old, whereas senators average slightly above 65 years old. For context, the median age of American adults is just under 39, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
The difference in age between the average American and average congressperson is an entire generation.
The Constitution already prohibits anyone under 30 from serving in the Senate and anyone under 25 from serving in the House of Representatives. Implementing an age maximum would allow Congress to better reflect our society — not a retirement home.
The cognitive ability of Congress’s oldest members is a growing concern, but so are their political stances.
Younger Americans’ attitude towards pressing modern-day issues like climate change is often ignored by the older generations. So it should come to no surprise when this behavior translates to misconceptions, contradictory votes and poor responses to constituents by older lawmakers.
Incumbent lawmakers that become lifetime public servants start doing more harm than good. We’re seeing this unfold with the actions of sitting senators who struggle to make it through press conferences and rely on unelected legislative aides to direct votes. This is unacceptable no matter where you stand politically.
Americans hold their elected officials to a high standard. Considering the job consists of appropriating federal funds, regulating commerce and sometimes authorizing military action, this is appropriate. But when members can’t carry out fundamental duties, the standards must become binding regulations.
I understand voters re-elect these representatives knowing they’re at a heightened age. But voters shouldn’t be responsible for predicting when their representative’s cognitive functions will deteriorate.
Having reasonable term limits in place would ensure most members are out of office by the time they reach a reasonable retirement age. Age maximums, which are imposed on judges in 31 states, would allow members who are elected later in life to retire gracefully.
These solutions are already widely popular among Americans. Roughly 80 percent of Americans support placing term limits, and two-thirds support an age limit.
Without such limits, incumbent politicians feel entitled to their seats and lack incentive to treat issues with urgency. Being unresponsive to developing legislation on critical matters contributes to a growing distrust of politicians among the electorate, and supports a vicious cycle of political disengagement.
When experienced politicians refuse to give up their seats, younger generations miss out on the opportunity to serve. Incumbent officials holding office for decades inherently deters people from running, which could stifle the development of future leaders.
Term limits and mandatory retirement would usher in a new generation of lawmakers determined to make their mark. Young policymakers equipped with modern proposals to tackle critical issues come in hungry for change. Knowing they have a finite amount of time to do so before their tenures expire would likely result in a faster-paced Congress.
Setting term limits and a mandatory retirement age would have a transformative impact on the modern political landscape. It would be a move in the right direction, away from a gerontocracy toward a truly representative democracy.
Hunter Craig is a senior public policy major. He can be reached at email@example.com.