By Rosalind Horrobin
Strom Thurmond was first elected as United States Senator for South Carolina in 1954. By the time of his retirement in 2003 he was over one hundred years old. In many ways Senator Thurmond can be seen an exemplum of the political issues around age, perpetual incumbency, and representation in US politics.
At the end of his career in the Senate, Thurmond was repeatedly described as “frail” and “feeble” and relied upon his Senate aides to tell him which way to vote. He also had a long history in opposing Civil Rights legislation; voting against the Civil Rights Acts of 1957 and 1964, as well as the Voting Rights Act of 1965. For the rest of his time in office, he never rescinded or renounced his pro-segregation policies and continued to argue for ‘states rights’ over civil rights. Six months after Thurmond’s death his daughter came forward, and told the press that she was the result of an affair between Thurmond and a 16-year-old African American maid.
Senator Strom Thurmond was the oldest ever sitting US Senator, but the issues and controversies surround his tenure are not isolated. The age gap between representatives and the constituents they represent results in multiple issues in the US Congress. One of which is just the practicalities of it all – the health concerns and potential mental deterioration. Another issue is the moral component; how accurately can a representative born in the 1930s or ’40s reflect the realities of modern issues? This is something that came to the forefront in the 2020 Democratic Primaries when the three front runners (Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren) were all born in the 1940s and expected to lead the country in the 2020s.
In the US, age is a protected characteristic, as is race, religion, gender and sexual orientation. There is a minimum age requirement to serve in the House of Representatives of 25 years old, and in the Senate of 30 years old. However, there is no maximum age limit. The age discrimination in Congress is asymmetrical. Senator Thurmond chose to retire in 2003, but he would have been able to run again if he chose to and he probably would have succeeded. Before his eventual retirement he collapsed many times and suffered numerous health issues – and he’s not alone. Mitch McConnell’s purple, bandaged hands were the cause of much concern to political commentators and with COVID-19 disproportionately killing the elderly, health issues are an increasing concern for the aging Congress.
However, health issues are not always as obvious as purple discoloured hands. Sometimes they are more hidden and benign-seeming. In 2017, the 79-year-old Senator Thad Cochran (R-MS) in an interview “needed a staffer to remind him where the Senate Chamber is located.” That same day, Senator Cochran voted the wrong way. One of his staffers had to remind him numerous times that he wanted to vote “no” and not “yes” before Cochran realised and switched the vote. Occasions like this make one question who is actually voting when a Congressmen is suffering from cognitive decline. In 2017, a media frenzy broke out when a Washington DC pharmacist revealed that he had prescribed Alzheimers medication for congressmen, saying; “At first it’s cool, and then you realize, I’m filling some drugs that are for some pretty serious health problems as well. And these are the people that are running the country. It makes you sit back and say, ‘Wow, they’re making the highest laws of the land and they might not even remember what happened yesterday.’” That’s maybe a slight understatement. To be fair, the pharmacist later said that he could not disclose any information about medication prescribed to members of Congress as it would be against privacy laws and that he was speaking “broadly.” Nonetheless, the very question of whether US law-makers may be cognitively impaired is troubling.
As said before, in the US age is a protected characteristic – you cannot discriminate against someone for their age – and for good reason. We cannot just write-off an entire generation as not eligible for representing, but we should acknowledge the issues that result from an aging congress. The average US citizen is 38 years old, but the average Senator is 64. This may result in a sitting Senator reflecting the values and issues of a bygone era. We can see Strom Thurmond in that category, but also sitting Senators like Jim Inhofe (R-OK), 86, and Representative Don Young (R-AK), 87.
New generations face new issues and if law-makers are stuck in the past, they may be unable to comprehend these issues. The 2018 Facebook Senate hearings made this glaringly clear. The 84 year old Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) asked Mark Zuckerberg how Facebook made money if users didn’t pay, leading to the infamous line, “Senator, we run ads.” This utter misunderstanding of the internet, privacy, and algorithms was a consistent theme throughout the hearings. Very often, Zuckerbeg was teaching the Senators how Facebook works, rather than facing robust questions on the issues inherent in Facebook.
Another example of how older Senators may have issues understanding more modern problems can be seen in Senator Inhofe. Senator Inhofe was born in 1934 and is a large climate change denier – calling global warming “the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people.” This is despite the fact that 82% of Americans believe that climate change is some kind of “threat” to the US. Moreover, Senator Inhofe was the chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee from 2003 until 2007, and then from 2015-2017. So, despite his views no longer being representative of the current US opinion on climate change, he also had a position of power and the ability to shape climate policy for the whole country.
And this leads us to the importance that Congress convention places on ‘seniority’ in the Houses. For example, the President Pro Tempore is effectively third in line to the presidency and would take over if anything happens to the President and Vice-President. The current President Pro Tempore, Patrick Leahy (D-VT), is 80 years old and is the only Senator to have served during the Ford administration. The convention is that the most senior member of the majority party is President Pro Tempore. This is conferring benefits on a Senator purely for their length of time in the Senate, and not for any policy achievements. Additionally, the chairmanship of a committee is often given to the most senior member of the majority party that sits on the committee – which leads to climate deniers like Senator Inhofe leading the Environment and Public Works Committee. This is an obvious issue within Congress that could be solved with minimal – if any – legislation, just practical changes to Congressional norms.
A tool that could be used to solve this issue is term limits. Incumbents are more likely to be re-elected with a 97% success rate for incumbents in 2016. Such a system stacks the odds against introducing young, fresh blood to Congress. Senator Cochran (the one who couldn’t remember where the Senate Chamber was) was repeatedly implored by Republican Senate leadership to run for re-election despite his decline. This is because political leadership understand the power of running as an incumbent and do not want any open seats up for grabs – especially now that the Senate is so tight. The issue this causes is an aging Congress with very few seats being adequately contested every election. There are often talks about the introduction of term limits for Supreme Court Justices, but term limits are never fully discussed for Senators or Representatives of the House. In the 1990’s there was a brief wave of attempted installations of term limits, but all were shot down on the House floor, never even making it to the Senate. Obviously, term limits would be a lot more difficult to instate than changes to Congressional norms of Seniority, but I do think its worth attempting.
Overall, there is an argument to be made that the US Congress cannot provide effective representation whilst still favouring the elderly as representatives and policy makers. The issues affecting the population now, are not the issues that were affecting them 30 years ago – and an understanding and reflection of current priorities is needed. It is difficult to see how Congress can argue against term limits and increased seniority prioritisation whilst also barring those from under 25 from representing their populations.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and may not reflect the opinions of The St Andrews Economist