America’s Gerontocracy Has Consequences

Most of the Senate is eligible for Social Security but they won't retire.
Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Patrick Leahy (seated) with Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley.

The juxtaposition of two stories today reinforces my longstanding concern that our political leadership is just too damn old for our good.

YahooNews/NYT (“‘We May Not Have a Full Two Years’: Democrats’ Plans Hinge on Good Health“):

“You look back in history, nearly 1 in 10 members of Congress have [died in office],” said Jane L. Campbell, president of the U.S. Capitol Historical Society.

That history has some Democrats worried that deaths or illnesses could derail President Joe Biden’s efforts to pass ambitious bills through Congress, which his party controls by the narrowest margins in decades.

“Our ability to make good on Biden’s agenda is pretty much dangling by a thread,” said Brian Fallon, a former aide to Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., the majority leader. “I don’t think it’s uncouth to talk about it. I think it’s a reality that has to inform the urgency with which we approach those issues.”

More than 1,160 sitting members and members-elect have died from accidents, disease and violence since the first Congress met in 1789, according to a New York Times analysis of House and Senate records. They include multiple House speakers, famed senators and two former presidents: John Quincy Adams and Andrew Johnson, who both returned to Congress after leaving the White House.

The pandemic and the Jan. 6 Capitol uprising fueled fears that this Congress was particularly vulnerable to such deaths. But with most members vaccinated and security tightened, old age may be a bigger threat. The average age of a sitting senator is 64, and for a representative it is 58, making this Congress one of the oldest.

The average isn’t really the problem, although it’s high. Neither 64 nor 58 are all that old; hell, I’m closing in on the latter myself. Of the 100 US Senators, five are over 80, 21 are between 70 and 80, and half are 65 years old or older. And this matters:

In the most extreme case, deaths could end Democrats’ ability to pass legislation without Republican support — or even flip control of either chamber. That is more likely in the evenly divided Senate, where a single Democratic vacancy could hand Republicans committee gavels and the power to schedule votes until a Democratic successor was appointed or elected.

A serious illness could also upset the party’s delicate legislative arithmetic.

“Schumer needs all 50 votes,” said Fallon, now the executive director of Demand Justice, a progressive advocacy group focused on the federal judiciary. “If somebody is laid up or is hospitalized for a long period of time and their vote’s not there, then having the majority is somewhat meaningless.”

And, of course, that doesn’t even account for President Joe Biden himself, who at 78 is easily the oldest man to be sworn in for a first term. Granted that he would be replaced by a hand-picked successor, Vice President Kamala Harris, it’s bizarre, indeed, that the will of the voters expressed in an election barely half a year ago could be placed in jeopardy by a poorly-timed death or incapacitating illness.

On the flip side of things, though, are stories like this one:

POLITICO (“Chuck Grassley is the 80-something everyone’s waiting on“):

Chuck Grassley still gets up at 4 a.m. every day and often goes for a 2-mile run. The 87-year-old does push-ups, too.

“You want me to do 35 for you?” he responded when asked about his regimen as he waited for a burger at Bambino’s, a haunt in this town of about 800 people.

The challenge sounds like something out of the classic “Seinfeld” episode in which the elderly Mandelbaum family taunts Jerry to prove his physical prowess. But Grassley’s longevity is no joke. It could be the ticket to an eighth term in the Senate — and change the midterm landscape.

If Grassley does seek reelection, Republicans and many Democrats concede the seat is essentially safe. If he doesn’t, the GOP’s road to the majority gets that much harder.

The most senior GOP senator says he’ll deliberate until the fall. He’s a conservative who can work with Democrats on a handful of issues, like criminal justice reform and drug prices, while executing brutal partisan power plays to fill the federal bench with conservatives. He’s held public office since 1959 and served in the Senate since 1981, including two years in the presidential line of succession.

Any Republican could retire and be proud of that kind of career. But Grassley might not be ready to call it quits.

“Listen, there’s nothing I see that’s going to keep me from serving another six years if I decide to do it,” he says during a swing through northeast Iowa as part of his annual 99 County Tour. “I just work from day to day. God will take care of tomorrow.”

And after five GOP retirements this cycle, Grassley is under pressure to save his party from defending yet another open seat as it labors to retake the majority.

“He’s getting a lot of encouragement,” said Senate Minority Whip John Thune. “He is the best path we have to keep the seat in Republican hands and take it off the map.”

It’s just nuts to me that Grassley and Dianne Feinstein, both aged 87, are not only still making public policy for this country but strongly considering running for additional six-year terms.

One understands the party’s desire to keep control of a seat and powerful incumbents help do that. But yeesh.

FILED UNDER: Congress, US Politics, US Senate
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Sleeping Dog says:

    Nearly as beneficial as having a mandatory retirement date for SC justices, one for senators and reps would be just as important.

    When Dems took control of the Senate, I wondered how long before Feinstein, Leahy or some other geriatric keeled over and cost them the majority.

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  2. Kathy says:

    Neither 64 nor 58 are all that old; hell, I’m closing in on the latter myself.

    How will you feel when you’re closing on 80 or 85?

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  3. James Joyner says:

    @Kathy: Probably pretty old! If I manage to live that long, I can’t imagine I’ll still be working. And my job is less taxing or critical than that of a Senator.

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  4. Stormy Dragon says:

    One understands the party’s desire to keep control of a seat and powerful incumbents help do that. But yeesh.

    No one doesn’t. The idea that Feinstein retiring would result in a Republican senator being elected in California makes no sense.

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  5. James Joyner says:

    @Stormy Dragon: I was referring to the Grassley case. Agree there’s next to zero doubt that a Democrat wins the Feinstein seat regardless.

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  6. Gustopher says:

    @Stormy Dragon: Isn’t Feinstein the one that’s actually senile? Asking the same questions a few minutes after asking them level senile?

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  7. Mister Bluster says:

    @Kathy:..How will you feel when you’re closing on 80 or 85?

    I bumped over 73 in January. 2021 is fast approaching the 50 yard line. When people find out how old I am I often hear “Really? You don’t look a day over 50!” or “70 is the new 40.”
    Yeah, well that’s easy for someone in their 3os to say.
    I’m slowing down. Physically and mentally. However that does not mean that I think younger legislators will necessarily make this country a better place to live just because they are nigh on three decades my junior.
    What’s her name Greene is 46 and Gaetz is 39.
    I’ve got no use for either one of them.

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  8. Jen says:

    @Gustopher: Yes, she did. She asked the exact same questions to the exact same witness.

    I’m just wondering why some of these people don’t seem to WANT to retire. These aren’t easy jobs, they can be exhausting. I think much of it is party pressure–the power of incumbency means that the seat gets held until someone dies, then usually a governor appoints the replacement until the next election. It’s cheaper for parties that way, and less risk when you don’t have them cannibalizing one another in inter-party squabbles during a primary.

  9. Kathy says:

    @Gustopher:

    That might simply be not giving a damn.

    I couldn’t say which one is worse.

    @Jen:

    Isn’t power like the ultimate narcotic?

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  10. HarvardLaw92 says:

    Ultimately, these creaking antiques keep getting returned to Congress because the voters want for them to be returned. Perhaps the problem lies as much with the electorate as it does with the elected.

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  11. Scott F. says:

    I’m the same age as James and I’ll fully cop to being an ageist. I don’t care how many push-ups Grassley can do or whether he still has the mental acuity to be lucid on policy. Same goes for Feinstein. But, 40 years in the Senate means 40 years inside the Beltway bubble and siloed from the lived experiences of the US public. That can’t be good for representative governance.

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  12. Jen says:

    @HarvardLaw92: Agree in part.

    It’s sort of a chicken v. egg thing at that point. Yes, the voters keep electing them…but, that’s the person they know on the ballot, who of course wouldn’t be there if they chose not to run. Again. And again. And again…etc.

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  13. KM says:

    @Kathy:

    How will you feel when you’re closing on 80 or 85?

    Most folks never really consider themselves “old” even if they are aware they’re quite aged. 60 is the new 40 and 80 is the new 60 and all that. As Silents and Boomers creep ever onwards in years, the threshold of “old” keeps getting pushed back and euphemisms start creeping in rather than accept one is medically geriatric. George Carlin remains ever relevant:

    And fear of aging is natural. It’s universal. Isn’t it? We all have that. No one wants to get old. No one wants to die, but we do! So we bullshit ourselves. I started bullshitting myself when I got to my forties. As soon as I got into my forties I’d look in the mirror and I’d say, “well, I…I guess I’m getting…older.” Older sounds a little better than old doesn’t it? Sounds like it might even last a little longer. Bullshit, I’m getting old!

    We say “older” instead of “elderly” or “geriatric” because telling someone 65 they’re “elderly” is gonna get significant pushback even if that is by definition what they are. If you are 50, you are over half a century old; 75 3/4ths. That’s old, even if it makes one mentally uncomfortable. We can’t really address gerontocracy if we don’t address that a huge part of our culture downplays age and insists it’s only a number. We have a segment of the population that swore to never trust anyone over 30 now insisting that they’re just as functional in their late 60s as they were in middle age. It’s only going to get worse as Gen X and Millennials internalize this idea and carry on the traditions; after all, if their parents didn’t concede power when they got old, why should their kids?

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  14. Sleeping Dog says:

    @HarvardLaw92:

    Then that brings up the whole issue of tribalism. Recently I commented something to Jeanne Shaheen, in closing I congratulated her on reelection and Dem majority, then added that I hoped that she would retire at the end of this term. She’ll be 79-80. Of course she won’t and I’ll vote for her anyway in the general.

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  15. Gustopher says:

    @Mister Bluster:

    However that does not mean that I think younger legislators will necessarily make this country a better place to live just because they are nigh on three decades my junior.
    What’s her name Greene is 46 and Gaetz is 39.
    I’ve got no use for either one of them.

    Ah, but who is going to be better able to understand the implications of altering legal requirements on internet companies?

    a) Someone who cannot remember things for more than five minutes, like Feinstein
    b) A complete lunatic who has been captured by internet conspiracy theories, like Greene
    c) Someone who uses venmo to purchase the services of underage prostitutes, like Gaetz

    At least Gaetz is going to understand that you want to own your own data on the online transactions you make, and you want default privacy settings that do not publically out you as a purveyor of unripe prostitutes.

    I mean, he didn’t understand that, but I would hope he understands that now

    It’s also possible that there is an option d.

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  16. Barry says:

    @HarvardLaw92: “Ultimately, these creaking antiques keep getting returned to Congress because the voters want for them to be returned. Perhaps the problem lies as much with the electorate as it does with the elected.”

    The electorate gets handed a fait accompli.

  17. Kathy says:

    @KM:

    Most folks never really consider themselves “old” even if they are aware they’re quite aged.

    True.

    Most people don’t consider themselves bad, dumb, or incompetent, either, even if they are Donald Trump.

    But age has a way of letting you know it’s there, whether you admit it or not. You can’t stay up late and be fresh in the morning with only a few hours of sleep, for instance. And there are a myriad other little and not-so-little signs one starts to receive sometime past 40

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  18. JohnMcC says:

    @Kathy: Actually, the quote that occurred to me is from Herr Kissinger: “Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac.”

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  19. JohnMcC says:

    @KM: As someone even older than our esteemed friend Phineas T Bluster (@Mister Bluster🙂 I still look in the mirror and see an athlete and adventurer. If it were only possible to convince my joints that they don’t have arthritis….

    What I really do object to is various healthcare providers who do not use the word ‘old’. I was NEVER ‘mature’ and don’t wish to be.

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  20. Jax says:

    @JohnMcC: I don’t care how old I get, I’m still gonna laugh when the ketchup farts. 😉

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  21. Michael Cain says:

    @KM:

    Most folks never really consider themselves “old” even if they are aware they’re quite aged.

    Unless they are all truly freaks of nature, you have to wonder if they’re simply not paying attention. I’m 67. I’m a bicyclist, and compared to even 15 years ago my balance has gone downhill. I was an applied mathematician and real-time programmer for years, and I cannot soak up new math and algorithms the way I could when I was young. When I went back to grad school at age 50 I discovered that I couldn’t read dense nonfiction and retain it at anything near the pace I could when I was younger. When I started a different job after that, it was clear that I didn’t deal with stress nearly as well as I did as a younger person.

    Actually, I think they all realize just how many steps they’ve lost, but their egos are all so big they still think they’re better than anyone else. The next generation behind them isn’t going to be any better. At least on the Democratic side, there’s a bunch of 50- and 60-year-olds that have been waiting 20 years for it to be their turn to run the committees and the chamber, and are not about to give it up.

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  22. This reminds me of the brief convo we had in an open forum about SCOTUS retirements and RGB and Breyer.

    The reality is some people seem not to know when it is time to step aside.

    I could change my mind, but I have a very hard time seeing myself working at 87, neither teaching nor administration. I can’t see it at 77. Indeed, at the moment I am looking forward to being at least retired (save for writing) at 67.

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  23. Michael Cain says:

    @Michael Cain:

    At least on the Democratic side, there’s a bunch of 50- and 60-year-olds that have been waiting 20 years for it to be their turn to run the committees and the chamber, and are not about to give it up.

    Related, I think this is Joe Manchin’s problem. He has finally got his hands on the reins of Senate Energy and Natural Resources, with a Democratic majority in the House and a Democrat in the White House. And his party has said, “West Virginia’s dream is dead and we will not deliver on it.” So he’s taking the tack that if he can’t get what he considers necessary things, no one else gets much either.

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  24. Mister Bluster says:

    @JohnMcC:..someone even older

    I am always overjoyed to know of folks that are older than me who are still active. It’s the ones who are younger than me who die that give me pause.

    The 2000 year old man.

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  25. Michael Cain says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    I could change my mind, but I have a very hard time seeing myself working at 87, neither teaching nor administration. I can’t see it at 77. Indeed, at the moment I am looking forward to being at least retired (save for writing) at 67.

    And the research that goes with the writing. Some good planning and good luck let me retire earlier than you’re thinking. I have been heard to say, “The good thing about retirement is that I get to choose all of the research problems. The bad thing is that I have to provide all the funding.”

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  26. Michael Cain says:

    Completely off topic, but why am I allowed to upvote myself?

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  27. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: Me too. But I know people (at least 2 in the town that I live in) who have so far declined to retire from teaching and I knew people in Korea who, when I told them I was going to retire (at 63) responded “no, you’re much too young to even consider retiring.” Then again for me, 65 didn’t turn out to be the new 45 and 70 (in the summer of 2022) is giving every indication of being the same crappy 70 that people had 2 generations ago. On the other hand, as a childhood chronic asthma patient, the advances in medication that came in my late 20s have given me about 30 years of playing on the house’s money relative to prognoses in the past up to the late 7os.
    @Michael Cain: Luck of the draw.

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  28. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Gustopher:

    Asking the same questions a few minutes after asking them level senile?

    I do that. I wonder if DiFi’s getting high, too?

    @KM:

    Most folks never really consider themselves “old” even if they are aware they’re quite aged.

    People are not good at spin. I’m 66 and I play it up. Because for an old guy I’m in decent shape, but for a young man I’d be a cautionary tale.

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  29. Kathy says:

    Coincidentally, I ran into an old Facebook meme that goes: all the people my age are older than I am.

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  30. Michael Cain says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    I’m 66 and I play it up.

    Graduate school twice, a career, a wife, houses, kids, dogs… I have earned every one of these gray hairs, and if Wendy’s is willing to give me 10% off, I damned well will take it :^)

    Yeah, first world whining.

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  31. dmichael says:

    This is an example of a post that has no significance beyond allowing people to comment on their respective ages. If DiFi (who is suffering from age related dementia) retires or dies in office, what happens? The democratic governor (currently Newsom) will quickly quickly nominate a Dem replacement. By the way, she has been replaced in the Intelligence Committee. Correspondingly, if Grassley dies in office, does anyone really believe that a substitute Repub won’t be appointed promptly? I believe that he was recently replaced on the Judiciary Committee. There are legitimate reasons to question the control that old folks have in the Congress (and in other public positions) but seriously, when the staff (young, ambitious and very smart) are really running things, who cares about the short term?

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  32. DrDaveT says:

    @Kathy:

    How will you feel when you’re closing on 80 or 85?

    I just got back from 10 days helping to babysit my in-laws. Both of them passed through maturity into venerability into incompetence without noticing the change, and would vehemently deny it to this day. There was never a moment when either of them felt unable to manage his/her own affairs. He’s 92; she’s 86.

  33. Kurtz says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    And taking photographs.

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  34. Ken_L says:

    I’m convinced some senators think of themselves as Platonic philosopher kings; the wise elders who prevent rabid partisan politics from destroying the City on the Hill. Once they get into that mindset, they believe they have an obligation to the nation to keep their seats as long as they live. Standing aside would be grossly unpatriotic.

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  35. James Joyner says:

    @dmichael:

    This is an example of a post that has no significance beyond allowing people to comment on their respective ages.

    A lot of our commentary on what are ultimately structural problems have no easy solutions, given the huge collective action problems. But it’s worth drawing attention to the problems, nonetheless.

    If DiFi (who is suffering from age related dementia) retires or dies in office, what happens? The democratic governor (currently Newsom) will quickly quickly nominate a Dem replacement.

    But what if she’s incapacitated for months, or even years, and can’t show up to vote? Suddenly, Kamala Harris is the 50th vote, not the 51st.

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  36. SC_Birdflyte says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: I’m with you. I had planned to retire at 70, when my wife would be 67 and we would still have some good years to travel and enjoy life. However, with some azzhole-inspired employment policies for adjuncts, and my wife’s weariness at trying to build a strong safety culture in county government, we hung it up at 67 and 65, respectively. I can’t imagine staying in Congress into my 80s.

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  37. al Ameda says:

    @HarvardLaw92:

    Ultimately, these creaking antiques keep getting returned to Congress because the voters want for them to be returned. Perhaps the problem lies as much with the electorate as it does with the elected.

    Thank you.
    Far too many people reflexively blame Washington and it’s ‘contents’ (Senators, Representatives, President) for this state of dysfunction, and act as if those ‘contents’ all got there by virgin birth. No, they all got there by way of their electorate – the voters. Service in Washington didn’t subvert and convert Matt Gaetz, Jim Jordan, and Marjorie Taylor-Greene from MacArthur Foundation Fellows or Nobel Prize winners to the acid baths they are today.

    The voters are no piece of cake. There is no such thing as an enduring or evergreen ‘Wisdom of The People’ – sometimes ‘The People’ collectively have wisdom, sometimes they don’t.