Stirewaltisms: It’s Time for an Age Limit for Federal Office
Plus: McConnell digs in, Hispanic women for Trump, and remembering P.J. O’Rourke.
IT’S TIME FOR AN AGE LIMIT FOR FEDERAL OFFICE
The constitutional age requirements for federal office—35 for president, 30 for senators, 25 for representatives—make sense. But they aren’t enough.
As Americans, especially elites, live longer and longer, we need upper limits, too. Not only are there considerations about the abilities of individual office holders, but about having a government that reflects the nation as a whole. I suggest a maximum age of 79 for all federal offices, including the Supreme Court. I’m certainly open to different ages, but let’s start there.
This is not primarily about the current president, his predecessor (both of whom would be disqualified in 2024 under my proposal) or the current members of Congress and the court. Partisans, supporters, and detractors could make all kinds of arguments about why certain very old people are good or bad at their jobs. What I am worried about is gerontocracy. The Founders’ generation did not know that most Americans would one day not only live so long or that they would remain so active into their later years.
The Constitution sets minimum ages for offices to make sure that the members of the government have enough maturity and practical experience to be effective in office and be good stewards of power. Youthful inexperience and excessive exuberance is still a problem today for sure. Teenagers don’t vote in large enough numbers to usually make a great deal of difference, but I can certainly see the argument for restoring the 21-year-old voting age. Based on what we know about the development of the human brain even since the age was lowered 50 years ago, 18 certainly seems young for full majority status.
But the Founders didn’t need to worry about the upper limits of age because nature mostly took care of that for them.
In 1820, the first Census to yield useful numbers on the ages of Americans, the median age was 16.7 years. It is now 38.1 years. The shift is partly because people live longer now than before, but also because we were a younger nation in every sense of the word. People had a lot more kids and started having them at much younger ages. Forty-year-old grandmothers were not rarities 200 years ago. Forty-year-old new mothers are not rarities now.
A great deal of todays’ life expectancy is, of course, thanks to advances in eradicating childhood disease and decreases in deaths related to childbirth. This explains a lot about why the estimated life expectancy for residents of select Massachusetts towns in 1789 was 36.5 years while American life expectancy is now 78.8 years. But we do not really care about life expectancy at birth for the sake of federal offices. We care first about how the people of the Founders’ generation thought about age.
There’s evidence to suggest that for their peers, the life expectancy for mature men—those of similar status who had reached the age of 15—was 62.8 years. That’s 16 years shorter than the American male life expectancy from birth today. The average age of the delegates to the convention that produced the Constitution and its age requirements was 42. The median age in the current Senate is 64.8, in the House, it’s 58.9. While modern congressional averages are probably helped by the inclusion of women starting in 1917 and their longer average life spans, the increase from the median age of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention to the members of the House, 16.9 years, is almost identical to the shift in the male population overall.
What if the trend continues? There’s no guarantee that it will, and the passing of the baby boom generation and the size of the millennial cohort will probably produce a temporary decrease in median ages of politicians and the public. But what if, over the long haul, life expectancies continue to rise, especially for elites, and the ages of our leaders rise along with them? Incumbency is very powerful, so once a member gets a seat he or she may remain there for decades. It’s also increasingly hard to do anything but serve in Congress after one gets elected, another barrier to entry for younger Americans.
The continual campaign cycle and stricter limits on outside income means the old concept of citizen lawmakers is harder to keep up. That pushes ages up, too. Normal considerations of people in their prime years—raising families and making money—are harder for lawmakers today even compared to very recent history. House members today make $174,000. That’s a lot if you live in Slab Fork or Dilles Bottom, and would be comfortably upper middle class in most of the country. But if you need to rent a place in Washington, that takes a bite. The inflation-adjusted pay of members in 2000 was equivalent to about $250,000 today, so in real terms, pay is going down. Ethics rules cap earnings from other work at about $28,000, so a second job can’t make up the difference, even if you had the time.
I’m not calling for a congressional raise, though I can see the need for one. I am, however, pointing out that for exceptional women and men in prime earnings years, Congress represents not just a pay cut, but a loss of crucial earnings years. It stands to reason then, that you will get fewer exceptional young members and lots more members who are old enough to not worry about such things. That would be the case even if we enacted term limits, as I now believe is also necessary. A full-time Congress with relatively modest pay is yet another advantage for the over-60 set.
Then there are the voters. We know older Americans are much more likely to cast ballots than their younger counterparts. But it’s probably even steeper than you think. In 2020, voter turnout was highest among Americans ages 65 to 74 (76 percent). The lowest turnout group, those ages 18 to 24, was just 51 percent. If senior citizens are 50 percent more likely to vote than young adults, what we know about implicit bias tells us that there will be a strong baseline preference in the electorate for older candidates.
I tend to think that, beyond the extremes, there’s probably a pretty low correlation between age and excellence in leadership. Young members aren’t better than old members. Justices in their 70s don’t necessarily have more wisdom than those in their 50s. You can be a bad president at 35 just as easily as you can at 80. That’s different, however, than saying age doesn’t affect competency on the whole.
And then there’s the big problem. Even the most robust, brilliant 85-year-old sees the world differently than the people who are in the middle of life. It’s important that the voices of the people with the most skin in the game—those raising families, in their prime working years—have a strong voice in the setting of national policy.
Less than a quarter of the signatories of the Declaration of Independence were older than 50. Just four of the 54 were over 60, and only one, the great Ben Franklin, was 70. Thirty-two members of the current Senate are older than 70. Six are over 80. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, now seeking an eighth six-year term, was born during Franklin Roosevelt’s first year as president. Even considering the shorter life expectancies of the Founders’ era, our leadership is very old by historical standards.