Should We be Concerned Our Political Leaders are Aging?

Seniors play a vital role in our everyday lives.  They contribute to our economy by purchasing items, paying taxes and employing service industry professionals.  Their ability to care for grandchildren and other family members allows others to work full-time and achieve their goals in life.  Seniors also volunteer at a pace on par with most other age categories and their wealth and charitable giving surpasses any other age segment in our country.  But there is one contribution by seniors that many people overlook; more and more seniors are serving our country in public office than ever before.

According to Quorum, a public affairs software platform that provides statistics to advocacy campaigns, the 115th Congress is among the oldest in history.  Today, the average American is 20 years younger than their Representative in Congress.  But before you assume the present age of Congressional members is just an anomaly, please note, according to the same source, their ages have increased almost every year since the eighties.  In 1981, the average age of a Representative was 49 and Senators averaged 53 years of age.  Today, the average Representative is 57 and the average Senator is 61.

And the trend toward older and older representation doesn’t seem to have an end in sight.  18 of the 33 Senators running for re-election in 2018 are 65 or older.  The following Senators, if re-elected this year will be in their 80’s before their terms end:  Senators Dianne Feinstein, Democrat from California; Orrin Hatch, Republican from Utah; Bill Nelson, Democrat from Florida; and Bernie Sanders, Independent from Vermont.  Some Senators are twice the median age of their constituents.  Representative, John Conyers, a retired Democrat from Michigan who recently retired amid harassment claims by multiple parties was 88 and twice the age of his constituents when he retired.  Conveniently, he endorsed his son, John Conyers, III a 27-year old who has never run for political office, to succeed him.  According to the Detroit Free Press, in 2010, Representative Conyers was caused to reimburse the Treasury Department more than $5,600 for his son’s unofficial use of his taxpayer funded Cadillac Escalade to attend a rap concert.

The advanced age of political leaders is even more alarming when you compare ages by party affiliation and leadership position.  The average age of Democratic House leaders is 72 years old while their Republican counterparts are 48.  Chairmen and Ranking members of each party also vary greatly.  Democratic Chairmen and Ranking members average 68 years of age while Republicans in the same positions average 59 years of age.  According to his article The Democratic Party has an age problem, Ryan Struyk, a CNN producer based in their Washington, D.C. bureau, notes that Democrats in particular have an age problem.  According to Mr. Struyk, young Democrats continue to wait patiently for their “moment” while their leaders like the aforementioned Dianne Feinstein, 84, seek re-election into their nineties.

As political leaders age, their health concerns may become disruptive to our democratic process.  Recently, an 80-year-old John McCain returned from surgery and a diagnosis of terminal brain cancer to cast a 1:00a.m. vote that crushed Republican efforts to repeal Obamacare.  Ironically, in 2009, then 92-year-old Senator, Robert Byrd was wheeled onto the Senate floor in geriatric condition to cast three critical votes to pass Obamacare.  You may recall, Byrd’s votes were critical primarily because then Senator, Edward Kennedy was at the time struggling with terminal brain cancer at age 77.

In October 2017, an alarming article entitled An old-school pharmacy hand-delivers drugs to Congress, a little-known perk for the powerful was run in STAT, a national publication focused on finding and telling compelling stories about health, medicine and scientific discovery.  In it, contributor, Erin Mershon noted that pharmacist, Mike Kim of the 150-year-old Grubb’s Pharmacy, who fills all the prescriptions for members of Congress, said he has given Alzheimer’s drugs to lawmakers.  Mr. Kim was quoted as saying “At first it’s cool, and then you realize, I’m filling some drugs that are pretty serious health problems as well.  And these are people that are running our country.”  “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.’” Mr. Kim has since recanted and clarified some of his comments.

Congress isn’t the only forum for senior American leadership.  The elderly Supreme Court has long worried the American public.  Rumors abound that Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, now 81, will retire this summer and that Justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg may not last this presidential term.  5 of the 9 justices are older than 67 with the average age being 69 years old.  Three are 78 or older, and several have serious age-related health problems.

Jennifer Colby, a political contributor for Politics on NBCNEWS.com, points out that while Congress continues to gray, there are two driving reasons for the increased age of leaders: (1) the members themselves choose to stay for personal reasons (the reasonable assumption is the extremely beneficial healthcare package, ever-increasing salaries and administrative budgets, and the high profile prestige of the position); and both parties continue to beg incumbents to serve regardless of age.  The perks for serving in Congress are obscene.  Shane Savitsky, a contributor for Axios, in his article The Perks of being a member of Congress, provides the following as perks of serving in Congress:

  • Members get annual allowances (averaging $1.27 million in the House and $3.3 million in the Senate) to staff and manage their offices almost entirely as they see fit, as well as for travel and other expenses.
  • The House has averaged 138 legislative days each year since 2001, and the Senate 162. The job requires long days, and members are often active in their districts when not in session, but how many jobs give their employees over 6 months to plan and schedule entirely as they see fit?
  • While members of Congress are required to purchase insurance via an Affordable Care Act exchange, they receive a federal subsidy amounting to 72% of their premiums, per Snopes. (Democrats say it’s a stand-in for the employer contribution most workers get.) They’re also potentially eligible for lifetime health insurance under the Federal Employees Health Benefit Program upon retirement.
  • Depending on age and length of service, members can receive a lifelong pension of 80% — which, given today’s congressional salary of $174,000, equals out to $139,200 in annual taxpayer-funded retirement benefits, per Investopedia.
  • Upon the death of a member of Congress in office, their family will receive a payout equal to a year’s salary ($174,000), per Congressional Institute. The one-time death gratuity for families of military personnel killed in action is $100,000.
  • Members of Congress have access to free, reserved parking spots at DC-area airports, a dedicated congressional call desk with major airlines and the ability to reserve seats on multiple flights but only pay for the flight boarded.
  • Our nation’s legislators get a slew of lifetime benefits even after leaving office, including a taxpayer-funded gym at the Capitol, access to the House and Senate floors, parking in House lots, and the ability to dine in the House and Senate dining rooms, per The Washington Post.

Setting aside political affiliation, maybe we should be concerned that our political leaders are aging and becoming older on average each year.  The average 70-year-old American woman has an 18% chance of dying this year.  By age 80, her mortality risk increases to 36%.  Our political leaders are not immune to such statistics.  Perhaps strict term limits or age limits are in order.  In the alternative, reforms such as those implemented by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals may be warranted.  That body requires its members to endure a battery of mental health assessments and discussions with neurological experts and it instituted the use of a hotline where staff members may report their superiors who show signs of cognitive decline.

Todd Miller is the Senior Partner with the Law Office of Todd Miller, LLC located in Jefferson City, Missouri www.toddmillerlaw.com (573) 634-2838.  Mr. Miller earned his juris doctorate from the University of Missouri School of Law in 1999.  He was most recently recognized as an Advisor of the Year by GolfInc. Magazine.  He is ranked a Superb Attorney with a “9.9” rating by AVVO and annually receives the Client Distinction Award by Lawyers.com. He writes and lectures on various legal topics and you may find him on Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn, and Twitter and at 1305 Southwest Blvd., Suite A, Jefferson City, Missouri 65109 staff@toddmillerlaw.com.