Richard Shelby is 87. James Inhofe is 86. Pat Leahy is 81. The three men have served in the senate for a total of 106 years.
And there are plenty more right behind them: Twenty-three members of the Senate are in their 70s; only one is under 40. According to the Congressional Research Service, the average age of senators at the beginning of this year was 64.3 years — the oldest in history.
So begins the debate: Experience vs. new ideas? Career politicians vs. short timers? Old vs. young? Boomers vs … everybody else?
Senior senators often stay for decades because voters are reluctant to give up the perks of incumbency: Seniority, committee chairmanships and all the money poured into their states. West Virginia’s Robert Byrd, who was in his ninth term when he died at age 92, funneled an estimated $10 billion to his constituents during his 51 years in the Senate, according to the Robert C. Byrd Center for Congressional History.
Which brings us to Feinstein. The senior senator from California, who has served for 28 years, has spent the last year defending her fitness for the job. During the confirmation hearing of Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett, liberals believed Feinstein was far too conciliatory and called for her to give up her seat on the Judiciary Committee.
But there is also a whispering campaign about Feinstein’s alleged cognitive decline: After what Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer called a “serious talk” with Feinstein, she gave up her seat as the ranking Democrat on Judiciary in November. (Schumer’s office did not respond to questions about the substance of the talk.) A December New Yorker article, citing anonymous sources, chronicled Feinstein’s memory lapses and other signs of age-related impairment.
In March, Democratic California Gov. Gavin Newsom made headlines when he said he would replace Feinstein with a Black woman if she stepped down before her term ends. The remarks created a firestorm; Newsom walked them back the following day, saying he was simply answering a hypothetical question. “I have no expectation that she’ll be stepping aside — quite the contrary,” he said on “The View.” “I talk to her quite often. She is as lucid and focused and as committed to the cause of fighting not only for our state as a representative, the senior senator of California, but this nation in her senior status as someone who’s been in the Senate, with great respect across the aisle, for as long or longer than most.”
For her part, Feinstein told reporters they were making a “mountain out of a molehill” and insisted she was physically fine: “I think that’s pretty obvious.”
Feinstein won a sixth term in 2018 when she was 85, easily defeating a more progressive candidate. Is all this chatter about her fitness a way for critics to replace her with a younger, more liberal senator? Or are there real issues about her health and acuity?
“Age may bring challenges, but it’s also a benefit when it comes to being in Congress,” she said in a statement for this article. “I’ve seen changes and trends not only in California but across the country — not to mention an evolving Senate. Living through that has made me much more effective at my job.” Seniority and depth of experience aren’t inconsequential, she wrote, allowing her a “long-term focus” to issues wildfires, immigration, climate change and other issues.
“I'll put my record up against anyone’s, and I remain as active as ever when it comes to solving problems,” said Feinstein. “That’s why I was reelected in 2018, and that's what I’ll continue to do.”
The question is: For how long?
In 2003, South Carolina’s Strom Thurmond retired at the ripe old age of 100 after 48 years in the Senate. The not-so-hidden secret was that his staff did everything but actually push the vote button during his last term, which ended six months before his death.
The Founding Fathers created minimum age requirements for serving in the House, Senate or as president but they did not address a maximum. Today the question is: How long should someone be allowed to work? In 1986, Congress ended mandatory retirement for most professions; in only a few is it legal for employees to be forced to leave by a specific age (usually by 65): The military, law enforcement, commercial pilots, air traffic controllers and, in a few states, judges.
Is creating laws for 330 million Americans any less important than flying a plane? Especially given the travel, the hours, the stress that senators endure? In Canada, where senators are appointed instead of elected, a mandatory retirement age of 75 was implemented in 1965.
In 1996, Bill Cohen (R-Maine) was one of 13 senators who voluntarily retired — an unusual exodus. Just 56, he had served three terms and could have won again. “In the Senate, you either were defeated or you died — that was the rule coming up,” says Cohen, now 80. “You could hold on to your seat as long as you were physically able to do so. You rarely were defeated and you rarely retired.”
But Cohen was tired — of the constant traveling, the fundraising, the partisan nastiness — and began thinking of the future. “It was basically, ‘I’ve got one more professional chapter in my life,’” he says. “’And I want to take it when I’m still physically and mentally capable of doing my best.’’” Cohen went on to serve as secretary of defense for President Clinton, followed by a successful consulting and writing career — inspired by Majority Leader George Mitchell, who stunned his colleagues when he left the Senate in 1995 at age 61 and became an acclaimed international diplomat.
But some senators stick around longer than they should, convinced that they still have important work to do and knowing they’ll likely never find another job with the same power and prestige.
Traditionally, it was considered rude to bring up a politician’s age. Republican Sen. Margaret Chase Smith, famous for her vocal opposition of McCarthyism, was shocked when a young challenger brought up her failing health during the 1972 primary battle. He didn’t win, but he intimated that the then-75-year-old was not the vibrant woman Maine voters had elected 24 years earlier. Smith lost the general election.
“Is it ageism to say someone is too old to carry out a job? And who decides that?” says Cohen. “Some people are old at the age of 40, mentally or philosophically, and some are young at the age of 90.”
Mike Kim, the owner of Grub’s Pharmacy, raised eyebrows in 2017 when he told STAT News that he routinely sent Alzheimer’s medication to Capitol Hill. “It makes you kind of sit back and say, ‘Wow, they’re making the highest laws of the land and they might not even remember what happened yesterday.’”
There are ways to nudge a politician toward the door, says political scientist Larry Sabato, founder of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. In 1960, Ted Green of Rhode Island was 92, the oldest sitting senator at that time. “They almost had to use sleight of hand to get him out of the Senate. He’d been forced to give up his committee chairmanship, but he still wanted to run for reelection and they ‘missed’ the deadline for filing. Isn’t that something? His staff missed the deadline.” Green lived to age 98; had he run and won, he would have served a full fifth term.
But that’s the exception. Most of the time, it is voters who decide who represents them and how long.
“Most Americans hate Congress, but love their congressman,” says Sabato. “They’re responsible for having elected that person, so surely they’ve done a good job. It’s those other people in other districts that are the problem. So if they reelect Dianne Feinstein or Sen. Grassley at an advanced age, that’s because their judgment is that the incumbent can deliver more — or is better than the alternatives.”
Of course, voters don’t always know everything happening behind the scenes. But in a democracy, he says, “We all have to live with the choices we make.”
What if there were another way?
The easiest way to address an aging Congress is term limits, an idea that’s wildly popular with voters but somehow never gets passed. In January, Ted Cruz, along with Marco Rubio and other GOP colleagues, introduced yet another bill calling for a constitutional amendment to limit senators to two six-year terms and House members to three two-year terms.
The bill does not directly address the issue of age. “For too long, entrenched, career politicians have sought to curry favor with special interests rather than serve the interests of the American people,” Cruz, 50, said in a email. “That’s why an overwhelming bipartisan majority of Americans support term limits — because the corrupt swamp they see in Washington is a direct result of political careerism.”
Joe Biden is the oldest president to take office — but the position is term-limited, and his health gets more scrutiny than a senator’s. When that limit was being proposed, President Harry S. Truman wrote a handwritten note saying they should be extended to Congress. “Twelve years of Washington is enough for any man … We’d help to cure senility, and seniority — both terrible legislative diseases.”
Republicans ran on the issue in 1994 as part of their Contract With America, but the Supreme Court shut down the debate the following year when it ruled in U.S. Term Limits, Inc. v. Thornton that states cannot set limits for U.S. representatives or senators that are not specifically enumerated in the Constitution.
“Term limits cut against the self-interest of every politician in Washington,” says Nick Tomboulides, executive director of U.S. Term Limits. “And as the old saying goes, the chickens are not going to vote for Colonel Sanders.”
So Tomboulides, 31, is going from state to state, trying to drum up enough support to bypass Washington. A 2019 Fox News poll reported that 80 percent of respondents favored establishing congressional term limits, including 86 percent of Republicans and 77 percent of Democrats.
Over time, they just become cogs in the machine,” he says of Congress. “They become assimilated to the leadership system, to the seniority system. They grow out of touch and they become beholden to special interests and lobbyists.”
Barack Obama echoed that sentiment in 2017 when he spoke at the Global Citizen Forum in Brazil. “I see in the U.S. Congress people who’ve been there 20, 30, 40 years,” he said. “And because they’re still there, they’re blocking the 25- or 30- or 35-year-old who is more of their time and could be more innovative and creative solving the problems we face today rather than the problems we faced 35 years ago.”
Senior senators’ age can become painfully obvious when they’re talking about the Internet and social media during hearings with tech moguls. Tomboulides says, “We actually have a joke around here: We don’t call them congressional hearings, we call them commercials for term limits.”
Norm Ornstein, a political scientist at the American Enterprise Institute, says term limits might bring in younger senators — but also politicians less interested in legislating and more interested in advancing themselves. That means the real power effectively ends up in the hands of staffers and lobbyists.
He points to California, which enacted state legislature term limits in 1990 and in 2012 modified them to create a lifetime maximum of 12 years.
“The whole idea was to channel ambition in a different way: If you’re only there for a limited period of time, you’re going to be more focused on doing the right thing,” he says. “The reality is exactly the opposite: What ends up happening is you channel ambition in exactly the wrong way. There is less interest in institutional preservation or maintenance. Why would you do something that benefits an institution that you’re going to be leaving? You want to do something that has a big splash now so that you can use it to move to your next job.”
Ornstein is concerned about the loss of institutional memory and relationships (especially in the Senate) if members would be limited to two terms. Critics of term limits point to Ted Kennedy, who served 46 years and did most of his important legislation during his last terms. Or they cite Bob Dole and Joe Biden, who did significant work throughout very long careers.
“Many of the best contributions that I have seen in the Senate have come from people who’ve been there four or five terms. If Ted Kennedy had been forced out of the Senate by a term limit, it would have been a tragic thing for the institution,” he says. But he adds, “At the same time, there are many examples of those who have lost a step or more and who begin to lose something cognitively. It’s a problem, and I don’t have a good answer for it.”
Meanwhile, Feinstein has filed papers with the Federal Election Commission for a 2024 reelection bid. It was a formality, according to her office, not an indication of her plans. If she runs, that’s up to the voters.