POINT OF VIEW: The aging Senate is becoming a problem

Paul Kane had a good piece recently in The Washington Post about very old senators, calling the current Senate the oldest ever because of all the octogenarians; by average age, it’s only “among the oldest,” according to the Congressional Research Service.

When we think about aging in the Senate, it’s natural to think of those who have been there forever, such as Vermont’s Patrick Leahy, first elected back in 1975. What’s really changing, however, is best seen in the contest to replace Jeff Sessions in Alabama.

Sessions himself turned 71 on Christmas Eve, and he had been in the Senate since 1997. His immediate replacement, appointed Sen. Luther Strange, is 64. Strange reached a runoff by surviving a three-way primary (although several other candidates were on the ballot, only three had serious support). One of those defeated in the primary, Rep. Mo Brooks, is 63. Strange lost the runoff to Roy Moore, who was inappropriately old for teenage girls back in the 1970s and is now 70. And Doug Jones, who defeated Moore and will soon be sworn in as the new senator from Alabama, is 63.

Given the politics of Alabama, Jones isn’t particularly likely to hold the seat long enough to reach 80. He’s already, however, contributing to the aging of the Senate — just as any of the other candidates would have done.

Nor is this case all that unusual. Elizabeth Warren was 63 when she became a Massachusetts senator. West Virginia’s Shelley Moore Capito was 61. Maine’s Angus King was 68. And overall, this appears to be part of a significant trend (I haven’t run the numbers since the 2010 elections, but these examples suggest no obvious major deviations).

Individually, there’s nothing wrong with first-time senators who are in their 60s. Collectively, it’s a bad idea. It means that the Senate doesn’t adequately reflect the life experiences of younger cohorts. It probably also means fewer fully energized and engaged senators, especially if it’s true (as senators themselves are fond of saying) that it takes a full term to learn how to be really effective within the institution.

I have no idea why it’s happened, or what can be done about it. But I do think parties and voters should do what they can to produce more new senators who are in their 30s and 40s, and fewer that are older. (I’d like to see senators in their 20s, too, but the Constitution foolishly prohibits it.)


Editor’s note: Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist.

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