Congress is older than ever these days and that could pose problems for our democracy.
Over at FiveThirtyEight Nate Silver and Dhrumil Mehta have a nice piece looking at how old Congress has gotten as of late. Simply put Congress is as old as it’s been since World War 2 and appears to be getting older. The partisan breakdown is a little different, with Democrats being a little bit older than Republicans on average. But the trend towards an older Congress over the last 30 years is pretty striking:
The average member of the current 113th Congress was 57.6 years old as of the start of the term on Jan. 3, 2013. This is close to the all-time high of 57.8 years, which was achieved in the 111th Congress, which came into office with Obama in 2009. By contrast, the average age was 53.0 in January 1993, when Bill Clinton took office, and 49.5 when Ronald Reagan did in 1981.
It’s not entirely clear why this is. It might be that winning elections tends to cost more than it did a generation ago making it that much harder for people in their 20’s or 30’s to win, or decide to run in the first place. It also might be a function of the US getting older as a society on the whole, or some other factor. But the trend line is pretty clear. Members of Congress are almost a decade older than they were 30 years ago.
The problem with an aging Congress comes on three levels. To begin with, legislatures being demographically out of sync with the constituents they represent probably isn’t a good thing in a democracy. If you took a number of smart and well-meaning Americans and put them in the Indian Parliament and they’d probably encounter some major problems. Not because Americans are bad people, but because they probably have no idea about what people care about in Rajasthan. The same thing can happen to a lesser degree in our society.
Secondly political science research shows that members of Congress tend to care about people that are broadly like them far more than those who aren’t. Which helps explain why members of Congress, who tend to be rich compared to average Americans, care a lot more about what the rich want than what the poor and middle class prefer. Put these two fact together and it starts to make sense why Congress will go into special session to make sure their flights don’t get delayed but fiddle their thumbs when it comes to extending unemployment benefits or passing immigration reform.
Finally there’s the fact that Congress itself benefits from having some members who are able to have long careers. Being a good legislator is a hard thing to do, and like anything else it can take a lot of practice to actually master. When people are getting to Washington already in their 50’s or 60’s they don’t have a whole lot of time left to learn these valuable skills. And our democracy suffers for it.
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