As older U.S. politicians face health concerns, should there be an age limit?

04 Sep 2023 | Politics | 209 |
As older U.S. politicians face health concerns, should there be an age limit?

Growing concerns over the health and fitness of some of the United States’ oldest politicians is proving that when it comes to politics, age is not just a number.

The issue was thrust into the spotlight again last week when Mitch McConnell, the 81-year-old Senate Republican leader, appeared to freeze and was unable to respond to a reporter’s question — the second such episode in just over a month for the longtime Kentucky senator.

The U.S. Congress’ attending physician later cleared McConnell to continue with his current schedule and workload, and his office has said he has no plans to retire before his current term ends in 2026.

That hasn’t alleviated concerns about the Republican leader, who’s far from the oldest member of the Senate. The conservative National Review publication published an editorial on Thursday urging McConnell to step down, noting he has “notably aged” since suffering a concussion and a broken rib in a fall last March that medical experts say may account for the freezing episodes. (McConnell’s office said both times he was dehydrated.)

Senators older than McConnell have also been facing calls to retire recently.

The oldest member of Congress, 90-year-old Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, missed months of work in Washington earlier this year when she was hospitalized for the shingles virus and its side effects. Since her return to work in May, she has travelled the Capitol halls in a wheelchair and has often appeared confused and disoriented. Last month, she had a brief hospital stint after falling in her home.

Feinstein announced earlier this year she would not seek re-election in 2024 after mounting pressure, but has been criticized for committing to serving the remainder of her final term despite her health issues.

While members of the lower House of Representatives tend to skew younger, with the average age falling below 58 years old last year, nearly three-quarters of senators are older than 58, according to the Pew Research Center. The chamber’s average age, 65, is the oldest on record.

Part of the explanation is that House members serve two-year terms and can use their time there as a springboard to higher office. Senators, meanwhile, serve six-year terms and are considered more senior legislators.

“There’s sort of a gentleman’s and gentlewoman’s agreement in the Senate that you get to serve as long as you want,” said Todd Belt, a professor at George Washington University who serves as director of the school’s political management program.

Many Americans disagree. A YouGov poll in January 2022 found 58 per cent of Americans want an age limit in place for elected officials. In September of last year, a CBS poll found even more Americans, 73 per cent, supported age limits.

Both polls found a plurality of those surveyed who supported age limits believed 70 years old was an appropriate cap.

Concerns over age are also plaguing U.S. President Joe Biden, who at 80 is the oldest-ever president in the country’s history.

A new poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research released last week found 77 per cent of Americans believe Biden is too old to effectively serve a second term in office. The number includes more than two-thirds of Democrats.

Despite the fact former president Donald Trump — who is seeking to return to the White House next year — is only three years younger than Biden, only 51 per cent of U.S. adults in the poll said Trump is too old to serve again.

Two-thirds of those surveyed said they support age limits for presidential and congressional candidates, as well as for U.S. Supreme Court appointees.

The average age in the U.S. Congress is one of the oldest in the world, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, topping countries with much older populations including Japan, Italy and Greece.

Canada’s House of Commons boasts a median age of 50.5, which is trending downward. Although the Senate’s average age is nearly 66, the chamber has a mandatory retirement age of 75 for members, who are appointed rather than elected.

Gerald Baier, a political science professor at the University of British Columbia, says Canadian politics are far less beholden to incumbency and money than U.S. politics, where a known name and fundraising prowess can ensure a politician can stay in office as long as they wish.

“There’s a lot more professionalization of politics in the United States, both around making a long-term career of it and a lot less volatility in terms of the way the voters move governments,” he said.

“Having only two parties helps,” he added with a laugh.

Essentially, Baier says an incumbent with a proven track record of winning and fundraising potential is less likely to be challenged in a party primary, where voters choose the candidate. Given the entrenched nature of many races — so-called “safe seats” that won’t flip from Democrat to Republican or vice versa — that ensures the incumbent can easily win the general election, even if their opponent raises more money.

McConnell is a key example of the phenomenon. One of the top fundraisers for his party in the Senate, he brought in over US$75 million last year when he wasn’t even running for re-election, according to OpenSecrets.org, which tracks campaign fundraising. Much of that money went to other Senate campaigns and groups funding Republican candidates in the 2022 midterms.

Despite raising a similar amount of money during his last race in 2020, McConnell was out-fundraised by his Democratic challenger, Amy McGrath, who raised US$94 million. Yet McConnell beat McGrath by nearly 20 points.

Canada has limits on political fundraising that can make running for and holding office a less enriching career, Baier says.

MPs and senators north of the border also have much smaller staffs than their counterparts in the U.S., forcing them to work harder.

“A guy like Mitch McConnell actually has a ton of people around him,” Baier said. “All their careers are sort of tied up with him staying there. And so they have a lot of incentive to keep him in that place because their relative power is there and they’re doing most of the hard work.”

Congressional pensions in the U.S. also benefit staying in office for longer. The pension is available to members 62 years or older who have served for at least five years, but the requirements bump up to at least 20 years of service for members over 50, and 25 years of service for any age.

—with files from Global News’ Jackson Proskow, the Associated Press and Reuters

by Global News