Curious fact, unearthed by Gerald Seib of The Wall Street Journal. The average age of Republican House members in the new Congress convening this week is 54.9, younger than the Republicans’ average age in the previous Congress, 56.5. But the average age of House Democrats has risen, from 58 to 60.2.
That can be explained partly by the high turnover in the 2010 election. Many younger Democrats, first elected in 2006 or 2008, fell by the wayside. The old bulls from 65 percent-plus Democratic districts survived. Meanwhile, many young Republican challengers won.
But the results are historically anomalous. Going back to the Congress elected in 1950, there has never been more than a 2.8-year difference in the average age of House Republicans and House Democrats. The difference in this Congress is 5.3 years, almost double that.
The picture is similar on the Senate side of the Capitol, where the average age of Republicans is 61.4 and the average age of Democrats is 63.1. That’s as wide a margin as in any Senate since the one produced by the election of 1982.
Democrats like to think of themselves as the young party, the party of new ideas. And in 2010, they remained the choice of the youngest voters, though by only half the margin in 2008.
But when you look at the top Democrats in the House, you don’t see young faces. The ages of the ranking Democrats on the Appropriations, Ways and Means, Education, Energy and Commerce, Financial Services, Foreign Affairs and Judiciary committees are 70, 79, 65, 71, 70, 69 and 81. The three party leaders are 70, 71 and 70.
Just about all these members are competent at pushing bills through the House, thanks to the fact that the House Democratic Caucus chooses the chairmen and ranking members by secret ballot vote. Less competent members get weeded out.
And because House Democrats, unlike House Republicans, don’t limit most of their chairmen to three two-year terms, competent chairmen can stay on and on. All those referred to above stayed in the House during 12 long years of Republican control, waiting for their party to win control again. House Republican chairmen, in contrast, have often chosen to retire after their three terms.
You get a similar picture when you look at leading politicians in the nation’s largest and one of its most Democratic states, California. Jerry Brown, elected governor at 36 and 40, has now won that office again at 72. The state’s two U.S. senators are 77 and 70. They began their political careers, as did the leading House Democrats, way back in the 1960s or 1970s.
So if the Democratic electorate is tilted toward the young, the Democrats’ leaders are tilted toward the old. And I think this matters at a time when, as scholar Walter Russell Mead writes in The American Interest, “The core institutions, ideas and expectations that shaped American life for the 60 years after the New Deal don’t work anymore, and the gaps between the social system we’ve inherited and the system we need today are becoming so wide that we can no longer paper them over or ignore them.”
Mead is looking back on the America of World War II and the postwar decades, when American life was dominated by the leaders of what I have called the Big Units — big government, big business, big labor. The assumption was that these units would grow ever bigger, to the benefit of ordinary people.
That assumption was shared by the Democratic leaders of the just-departed 111th Congress, who grew up in Big Unit America. They passed a $787 billion stimulus package on the assumption that big government would put people to work. They passed the health care bill on the assumption that centralized experts in big government could provide better care at lower costs.
The voters in November 2010 rejected those assumptions. It’s not clear whether congressional Republicans can advance policies more in line with the changed character of our society. And it’s an open question whether they can reach agreement on any important issues with Barack Obama, who is a generation younger than most of his party’s leaders in Congress.
The Democrats’ congressional leaders will defend the Obama agenda to the extent possible. But can they take their party in a somewhat different direction than the one voters rejected in November?