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 misconceptions.
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?