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Voters seem to value experience more than ever, but how old is too old to serve in Congress?

Is age diversity a problem in Washington? We’re taking a look

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Stock image (Getty Images)

While voters turned out in record numbers for Election Day, there continues to be a trend each election cycle regarding exactly for whom people are voting: In general, voters haven’t seemed to mind electing candidates who are already eligible for Social Security, or have been for years.

Age diversity in Congress continues to be a controversial topic, with the average age of congressional members seemingly getting older with each cycle.

In addition, President-elect Joe Biden just turned 78, and will be the oldest man to be sworn into the presidency in January.

Reasons vary as to why older people get elected so often, and solutions -- for those who feel age diversity in Congress is an issue -- aren’t simple by any means.

“The public wants it both ways,” said Dave Dulio, a political science professor and director of the Center for Civic Engagement at Oakland University. “They want new voices and fresh representation, but they also (want) people with experience.”

Facts about age in Congress

As the end of 116th Congress draws nearer, here is an age breakdown for congressional members:

  • The average age of the House of Representatives was 57.6 years old after the 2018 election.
  • The average age of the Senate was 62.9 years old after the 2018 election.
  • Seven senators are now at least 80 years old, with four of those members being older than 85.
  • 29 senators are at least 70 years old.
  • 51 senators, more than half the 100 members, are at least 65 years old.
  • At the start of the session in 2018, 147 members of the House of Representatives were older than age 65.
  • Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi is 80 years old.
  • Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is 78 years old and was just elected to serve another term.

Latest election results will likely increase average age, not lower it

The average age isn’t likely to go down when the 117th Congress commences in January.

Going into a pair of January runoff elections in Georgia for two Senate seats, of the three Senate races that saw incumbent candidates defeated, two of the newly elected candidates were older than the incumbents, and the other was the same age.

In Colorado, 68-year-old John Hickenlooper defeated 46-year-old Cory Gardner. In Arizona, 56-year old Mark Kelly beat 54-year-old Martha McSally. In Alabama, 66-year old Tommy Tuberville beat 66-year-old Doug Jones.

Newly decided House races won’t skew the average age number downward in that chamber, either.

In Utah, 69-year-old Burgess Owens beat 45-year-old incumbent Ben Adams in a race for a House seat. In New Mexico, 36-year-old incumbent Xochitl Torres Small was defeated by 56-year-old challenger Yvette Herrell. In Florida, 49-year-old Debbie Mucarsel-Powell was defeated in a race for a House seat by 66-year-old Carlos Gimenez.

There were, however, two big shifts to younger candidates in House elections.

In Minnesota, 76-year-old Rep. Collin Peterson was beaten by 55-year-old Michelle Fischbach. In Florida, 59-year old Maria Elvira Salazar unseated 79-year-old incumbent Rep. Donna Shalala.

What are some reasons why older candidates seem to get elected?

Many times, older candidates who are running for office are seeking re-election, and those incumbents have distinct advantages in regards to money and the ability to make policy measures around election time.

Candidates already in office usually have easier access to campaign finance funds and other fundraising resources.

Dulio said incumbents, right around election time, can help pass legislation that provides funding for things such as roads, schools, public works or anything else that benefits a community and gets voters on their side.

“Incumbents are in office and they’re in a position to do things for people,” Dulio said. “It’s not necessarily dastardly. They can do things for people that are important at re-election time.”

In addition, there are many districts around the country in which there aren’t competitive elections because voters are going to overwhelmingly favor one political party, no matter which candidate is running. This is especially true for House races.

“Most of the time, a candidate who wants their job back gets it,” Dulio said.

Is being older necessarily a bad thing?

Dulio said he’s been told by numerous candidates who go door-to-door trying to get their message out that they usually get one big question from voters: “‘How much experience do you have?’”

Having experience definitely matters to people, especially more so if they have done what voters feel is good work.

Dulio cited the example of Michigan Rep. John Dingell, who served almost 60 years in the House and earned the goodwill of many voters that kept him in office.

“He was doing something right,” Dulio said. “I think you can absolutely make that case.”

Are there solutions to bring in younger candidates?

The president can only serve two terms, and term limits for congressional members as to how many times they can run for an office is one solution that is often tossed around to increase age diversity and the presence of fresh voices on the Capitol.

But the issue of term limits brings about seemingly endless debates from both sides of the issue, and up to this point in history, has ended up going nowhere on a national level.

Some states do have term limits for their representatives and senators.

Dulio said back in the late 1800s and early 1900s, political parties handpicked their candidates.

Now, it’s more about whether candidates want to run or not.

Whether it’s the cost of mounting a campaign -- and the sunk costs if that bid for office is unsuccessful -- or simply not wanting the job, finding younger candidates can be a challenge.

“There’s less of a pull for younger candidates,” Dulio said.

Political parties also see the trend of voters, and aren’t motivated to try and recruit younger candidates in the way they used to more than a century ago.

“I think it would take a concerted effort on the part of the political parties to recruit younger candidates,” Dulio said. “I wonder if there is any pressure to do that. My guess is that it’s not a big enough priority for voters.”

As long as that’s the case, the argument of experience vs. fresher perspectives in Congress will rage on for the foreseeable future.

Rep. Don Young of Alaska is the oldest member in Congress by months over California Senator Diane Feinstein. Alex Wroblewski
Rep. Don Young of Alaska is the oldest member in Congress by months over California Senator Diane Feinstein. Alex Wroblewski (Getty Images)

5 oldest current members of Congress

1.) Don Young (House)

Age: 87

State: Alaska

Year elected: 1973

2.) Diane Feinstein (Senate)

Age: 87

State: California

Year elected: 1992

3.) Chuck Grassley (Senate)

Age: 87

State: Iowa

Year elected: 1981

4.) Richard Shelby (Senate)

Age: 86

State: Alabama

Year elected: 1987

5.) Jim Inhofe (Senate)

Age: 86

State: Oklahoma

Year elected: 1994


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