With the passing of sitting Senator Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia last month at age 92, the topics of our aged Congress and term limits came up. Is our current Congress too old? If so, do we need to institute term limits to keep our leaders from becoming career politicians? Let’s start the discourse by looking at some numbers past and present.
The 1st Congress of the United States met from March 4, 1789-March 3, 1791 and consisted of 65 Representatives in the House and 26 Senators. The members serving in the House began their careers in Congress at the average age of 44 and served for an average of little more than 2.6 terms (5 years and 2 months). The members of the Senate had an average starting age of 46 and served an average number of terms just shy of 1.3 (7 years and 10 months). Today’s 111th Congress, by contrast comprises a House of 435 members and a 100 member Senate. The average inaugural age for the House is 47 with just under 6 terms (11 years and 11 months) served. The average age a current Senator is 51 at the start of his or her term and the length of service is about 2.1 terms (12 years and 10 months). See Table 1 for comparisons between the 1st and 111th Congresses.
There appears to be little difference between the starting ages of congressional leaders now and during the early years of the republic; however, the tenure of 21st century members is roughly double that of their 18th century predecessors. It seems that the answers to our original questions are mixed. But what if we look at this data from another perspective: life expectancy?
In the late 18th century, life expectancy in America was on average 38.5 years. So when the Founders set the minimum ages to serve in the House and Senate at 25 and 30 years old, respectively, they wanted leaders who had lived most of their lives (65% and 78%). Put another way, they wanted leaders who had had time to gain a fair amount of life experience. Could the founders have predicted that advances in science and medicine would improve our standard of living and increase our expected lifespans to 78 years by the 21st century? I would argue they did not, or they might have set the minimum ages to serve closer to their own ages. Table 2 compares the inaugural ages and tenures of the 1st and 111th Congresses in terms of percentage of life expectancy.
When both Congresses are viewed through the prism of life expectancy, our answers become clear. The current members of Congress are not really old at all when compared to the members of the first Congress. They also do not serve for appreciably longer periods of time; therefore, the notion that elections are the best form of term limits remains to be true. In fact, it was the members of the 1st Congress that were serving after their expected lifetimes. After he had served the country as President, Thomas Jefferson (at the age of 75) wrote a letter to another Founding Father and former President, John Adams (then age 83), in which he remarked that they were “left alone amidst a new generation whom we know not, and who know not us.” Perhaps the members of the 1st Congress had shared that sentiment and I think it’s one that we sometimes wish our members of Congress would share too.
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