(*With apologies to Paul McCartney)
Is it time for Congressional age and term limits? The answer is a resounding Yes!!! But can we make it happen?
I’ve received an enormous amount of feedback from Saturday’s column, “Dianne & Lindsey Sitting in a Tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G!”
While some of the commentary concerned Senator Dianne Feinstein’s imprudent praising of and hugging with Senator Lindsey Graham at the conclusion of the Senate Judiciary hearings on the confirmation of Judge Amy Coney Barrett, many more comments revolved around age-related decline in cognitive functions and Congressional tenure and term limits.
“There are so many elderly Senators…perhaps Feinstein is experiencing beginning signs of Dementia! Term limits need to be instituted!“
“How about regular IQ tests? We’ve been taught that one’s ‘IQ’ doesn’t change over the years. But with so much evidence to the contrary, we might want to reexamine that postulate.”
“(Feinstein’s) viewpoints are way out of touch with California Democrats. It may be related to the fact that she’s been there too long; her cozying up to Republicans in the Senate is appalling.“
“(Feinstein) is walking proof that seniority is the biggest bunch of crap in politics. Compare her to how Senator Whitehouse conducted himself and who would be a better chairperson.“
“I let her folks know that she needs to retire (Katie Porter would be a great replacement if she doesn’t replace Kamala.)“
“Feinstein, McConnell, Grassley all make me an advocate for term limits. “
With all this discussion concerning the age of, and term limits for, our elected representatives, I though it would be instructive to see how big a problem this really is. So, as the anchors at MSNBC say to Steve Kornacki, “let’s go to the big board and look at the numbers!”
First some perspective:
- There are rules regarding minimum age: 30 or over in the Senate; 25 or over in the House. This is specified in the U.S. Constitution.
- There are no (old) age restrictions in either house of Congress.
- There are no term limits in either the House or the Senate
Second, how big a problem is it, really?
As Larry David might say, “a pretty, pretty, pretty big problem!”
I ran some numbers using my own arbitrary standards – Age limit: 75; Term limit: Senate – Three terms/18 years; House – Six terms/12 years. While you might quibble with either or both of my standards, let’s start there for argument’s sake
The chart above lists all current United States senators who are aged 75+. There are 14 of them, or 14% of the body. The average age of this group is 80.5. Five of the 14 will have served over 35 years by the end of their term. The average tenure of the group is 25.5 years.
Speaking of tenure, let’s look at time in office
Currently there are 20 senators who have been in office 18 or more years (my arbitrary term limit). That’s an astounding 20% of the Senate! The average tenure for this “Gang of 20” is over 25 years.
House of Representatives
The situation is slightly less egregious in the House, probably due to the fact that representatives run every two years – it’s not easy defending your seat every two years when your old –but not much less. There are currently 36 members who are 75 or older, 12% of the House, with an average age of 79. 30 of those 36 have served 12 +years, my recommended term limit, with an average tenure of over 26 years!
So what’s the remedy? There isn’t an easy one.
Both national term limits and age restrictions would require a Constitutional amendment, no easy task. (*see note below)
Let’s talk age limits first, and as we’re talking about it, keep in mind that when the Founders wrote the Constitution and established minimum age requirements, they didn’t need to think about an age limit when the average life expectancy in the United States was 38! (I assume they didn’t really have to think of gun restrictions back then either when the average time frame between musket shots was about two minutes…but I digress.)
Regarding term limits, in 1995, in U.S. Term Limits v. Thornton, the citizens of 23 states had just passed laws putting term limits on their members of Congress. That meant that if those laws were upheld, just under half of all congressmen would have been term-limited and Congress would have been probably forced to propose a term limits amendment applying to everyone. But…
The U.S. Supreme Court (SCOTUS) opined that since the Constitution sets forth the criteria that determines the requirements for Senators and Congressional Representatives, only the Constitution can limit the terms of Congress members. In that 5-4 split decision ruling, the Court decided that citizens are not allowed to term limit their own members of Congress using state laws. They threw out 23 states’ term limits laws in one day. (**see note below)
So, as logical as term limits and age restrictions of our elected Senators and Representatives are, don’t expect immediate action. Expect a lot of hard work and a lot of legal briefs for years and years to come. And, on this one, it probably makes no sense to write your congressmen. How likely do you think they’ll be to get behind legislation and amendments that terms and/or ages them out of their cushy jobs?
Regarding term limits, if you agree that something must be done, go to “U.S. Term Limits” https://www.termlimits.com/ and see how you can get involved
Age limits are more problematic as there don’t seem to be any movements or organizations in place to amend the Constitution in this matter, despite the logic. I guess the best advice is the one I received from one of my readers regarding what to do – Vote Them Out:
“I’m really disappointed in myself that I voted for her (Feinstein) . Hopefully she won’t run next time, and if she does, I’ll mobilize against her in the primary.“
By the way, don’t get me started on term and age limits for SCOTUS and the abolishment of the Electoral College!
(*Under Article V of the Constitution, there are two ways to propose and ratify amendments to the Constitution. To propose amendments, two-thirds of both houses of Congress can vote to propose an amendment, or two-thirds of the state legislatures can ask Congress to call a national convention to propose amendments. To ratify amendments, three-fourths of the state legislatures must approve them, or ratifying conventions in three-fourths of the states must approve them.)
(**Before you all start screaming “another example of ‘right-wing judicial activism’ allow me to point out that the liberals plus Justice Kennedy made up the five. All four conservative Justices made up the minority. In his argument for the majority, Justice John Paul Stevens wrote, “The Congress of the United States, therefore, is not a confederation of nations in which separate sovereigns are represented by appointed delegates, but is instead a body composed of representatives of the people.”