In our great system of American government, we have come to believe that age is a good thing. The older our elected officials — the theory goes — the better equipped and more seasoned they are to handle the challenges of running a government across our continental country.
After all, experience is what voters crave, no? President Obama himself had to overcome early questions about his relative inexperience, and he worked hard to debunk those misperceptions.
Wisdom is also a coveted hallmark of someone who’s logged a few more years in elected office. That can’t be a bad thing. I’ve never met a politician who didn’t pray for the wisdom of Solomon as he dealt with the most difficult of legislative matters.
But does too much gray affect an office holder’s gray matter? Is there such a thing as being too old to capably lead and govern such a massive nation of laws and regulations? At what point does a legislator become so debilitated he or she is no longer able to effectively execute the duties of office? And how can we as a voting public know when those mental and physical thresholds have been crossed?
Knowingly or not, we face these questions today.
As our nation has aged, so, too, has our Congress, perhaps even more acutely. A 2008 Congressional Research Service report found that the 110th Congress that year was the oldest of any Congress in U.S. history. The Congress currently in session today broke even that record. The average age of senators at the beginning of this 111th Congress was 62.7 years. By comparison, the average age in the first Congress more than 200 years ago was a mere 47.
Clearly, longevity and the miracles of modern medicine explain away these differentials. Yet a closer look at the age breakdowns reveal a heavy tilt in the upper chamber towards those entering or currently in the eighth decade of their lives.
As of last week, four sitting U.S. senators are currently in their 80s, and 22 are in their 70s. One senator — the indefatigable Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia who passed away yesterday was 92. Even at that tender age, Mr. Byrd did not reach the pinnacle of my old boss and mentor. Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina who was 100 years old when he left the Senate.
But is that a good thing? Is our nation better off because individual lawmakers tried to outlast one another and die in their jobs?
As many know before his death, Mr. Byrd suffered from Parkinson’s disease and was in increasingly failing health. He rarely got to the floor, leaving most of the legislative heavy lifting to his staff. In the final years of his tenure in office, Mr. Thurmond could barely maneuver the halls of the Senate without an ever-present aide to assist him. Was he in the moment? I would argue “no.” Which meant the voters of South Carolina were being short-changed.
Yes, Mr. Thurmond’s staffers embodied the principles of their boss. But they weren’t elected; Strom Thurmond was. And he owed it to them to fight until he was physically unable to fight no more, but more importantly, know when to step down.
Some will say age should have nothing to do with an elected official’s desire to remain in office. Ronald Reagan proved that point with remarkable grace. Elected to his first term at 69, Mr. Reagan quickly silenced critics regarding his age, telling an audience in 1984, “I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”
Set aside the stigma of a number for the moment and examine what policy positions come from these geriatric-minded members of the Senate.
Who could forget Sen. Ted Stevens’ rant in the Senate chamber in 2006 when the Alaska Republican likened the Internet to a “series of tubes” that are filled with various messages? That debate involved a serious issue in today’s tech world concerning net neutrality, and yet the 83-year old senator’s remarks devolved it into something more fitting for a second grader.
Then there’s Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. His private comments in which he stated Barack Obama would be a successful candidate in the 2008 presidential race because he is “light skinned” and spoke with “no Negro dialect” were perfectly acceptable when Mr. Reid was growing up in the 1940s! That’s how folks talked back then.
And therein lies the problem.
Mr. Reid’s gaffe was less one of a “senior moment” and more of simply being out of touch with today’s cultural and socially acceptable standards. If the leader of the greatest deliberative body in the free world doesn’t have the mental faculty to know he can no longer refer to African Americans as “negroes” then we have serious problems.
Was Mr. Stevens too old to know better? Had he ever even used the Internet? Neither matter. The point here is Mr. Stevens himself simply couldn’t keep pace with today’s pressing policy issues. Could his staff step in and take care of the finer details? Perhaps, but did the Founders really envision a Congress run by unelected employees?
Congressional staffs alone cannot, nor should they be expected to, cover up the legislative foibles of sitting senators who don’t take the time to fully understand this rapidly evolving world we live in.
And we as the recipients of the policies these “elders” enact are entitled to their personal and vested involvement.
Mr. Reagan quipped, "Thomas Jefferson once said, ‘We should never judge a president by his age, only by his works.’ And ever since he told me that, I stopped worrying."
Unfortunately, I’m still worrying. Worrying that our oldest lawmakers are more consumed with the trappings of the office they hold than the work they provide, leaving the dirty work to faceless staff members who are neither elected nor directly accountable for their actions.