Is Congress Getting Older?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Jan. 2 2013 2:05 PM

Democracy or Gerontocracy

Is Congress getting older?

US Senators John McCain (L) and Carl Levin speak on proposed bipartisan changes to Senate.
Sens. John McCain (left) and Carl Levin on Dec. 28, 2012, on Capitol Hill

Photograph by Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images.

The House of Representatives passed an agreement to prevent across-the-board tax increases on Tuesday. A majority of House Republicans opposed the measure, which had been negotiated by the Senate on Monday. Ohio Rep. Steven LaTourette told his colleagues, “We should not take a package put together by a bunch of sleep-deprived octogenarians on New Year’s Eve.” Are our legislators getting older?

Yes. The 111th Congress, which took office in 2009, was the oldest in U.S. history, with an average age of 57 in the House and 63 in the Senate. (The sitting 112th Congress is only slightly younger.) At the time, many reporters pointed out the creeping gray in the U.S. Capitol and speculated about the significance of changes in the ages of our representatives. It’s best not to read too much into the numbers, though. The average age in Congress has remained within a rather small range since World War II. The average age in the Senate was 59 in 1945, compared to 62 in 2011. The House has aged more substantially, with the average rising from 53 in 1945 to 57 in 2011. Between those years, average age fluctuated irregularly.

Dips and surges in the age of our legislators probably have less to do with our attitudes toward the elderly than with views about incumbents. The youngest Senate in recent history took office in 1981, when Ronald Reagan’s victory swept Republicans into the majority for the first time in almost 30 years and dropped the average age to less than 53. It should also be noted that median age tends to be slightly more stable over time than average age, especially in the Senate: A handful of octogenarians and nonagenarians among 100 can markedly influence the average. In the record-breaking 111th Congress, for example, Robert Byrd began the term as Senate president pro tempore at the age of 91. When Byrd died, Daniel Inouye, then 85, assumed the office.

Americans used to be more inclined toward youthful representation. In 1797, Congress seated its youngest-ever member, 22-year-old William Charles Cole Claiborne of Tennessee, even though he didn’t meet the constitutional age minimum. In 1869, the average age of members of Congress was just 45, far younger than any Congress of the 20th century. Life expectancy likely had something to do with the 19th-century preponderance of younger men: The average American born in 1900 expected to live only 49 years, compared to more than 78 today. More importantly, the House of Representatives was widely viewed as an “up or out” institution in the 1800s, much like a modern law firm. Most members served one or two terms, then either sought higher office or returned to private life. The average tenure in the House in 1860 was four years. It doubled to eight years in 1920, as careerism took hold. Changes in House rules made seniority increasingly important and provided a motivation for representatives to keep their seats. In addition, changes in ballot design allowed voters to select a presidential candidate from one party and a senator or representative from another, making it more difficult to unseat an incumbent.

Congress is decidedly older than the populace it represents: Although Americans may serve in the House beginning at age 25, only 10 percent of House members have been under the age of 40 in recent years. By comparison, 22 percent of the general population and 30 percent of registered voters are between 25 and 39 years old. The average American is more than 20 years younger than the person who represents him or her in the House. Reformers occasionally attempt to alter this status quo. During the 1970s, constitutional amendments mandating retirement from Congress at ages ranging from 65 to 75 were discussed, but 20th-century Americans never embraced the idea of a congressional youth movement.

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Brian Palmer is Slate's chief explainer. He also writes How and Why and Ecologic for the Washington Post. Email him at explainerbrian@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter.