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Age ain't nothing but a number but for aging lawmakers, it's raising questions

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., center, is helped by, from left, Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., and Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, after the 81-year-old GOP leader froze at the microphones as he arrived for a news conference, at the Capitol in Washington on July 26.
J. Scott Applewhite
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AP
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., center, is helped by, from left, Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., and Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, after the 81-year-old GOP leader froze at the microphones as he arrived for a news conference, at the Capitol in Washington on July 26.

This week, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell appeared to freeze involuntarily at an event in his home state of Kentucky. It was the second time in just over a month that the 81-year-old Republican publicly struggled to speak. He had a concussion in March.

The dramatic on-camera incidents are drawing additional attention to the advanced age of elected officials in Washington. At 80 years old, President Biden is the oldest president in history. Donald Trump, the top Republican presidential candidate, is 77. And the current 118th Congress is one of the oldest in a century.

"Societies elect elders because they're wise and it sort of makes sense as a way to govern," explained Kevin Munger, a political science professor at Penn State University. "But in fact, today is unprecedented."

Americans are generally living and working longer but the age and health of lawmakers is more notable at a moment when young voters in particular are increasingly interested in electing people who look like them and share their experience of the world.

The median age in the U.S. was 38.9 in 2022. By contrast, the median age in the House is currently 57.9 and the Senate is 65.3.

"There's just no way for people in older generations who experienced the early part of their life cycle in a very different time period to understand where young people are coming from," Munger said.

Still, aging lawmakers are hardly a new phenomenon. Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., served from 1954 to 2003, leaving office just after his 100th birthday. Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., the longest serving senator in U.S. history, died in office at 92 on June 28, 1992. He was in office for just over 51 years.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., is flanked by aides as she returns to the Senate Judiciary Committee on May 11.
J. Scott Applewhite / AP
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AP
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., is flanked by aides as she returns to the Senate Judiciary Committee on May 11.

But the recent health concerns of lawmakers is raising questions about their ability to do the jobs they were elected to fulfill. In the case of Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the 90-year-old California Democrat missed 91 votes this year while she recovered from the shingles virus. Her absence also stalled the nominations of a number of judicial nominees.

Alan Lichtman, a historian and professor at American University in Washington, D.C., said the age of elected officials can be attributed to polarization. He said incumbent lawmakers rarely lose, in part because parties rarely challenge their own members in primaries. As competitive seats have dwindled, so has the ability to unseat a sitting lawmaker.

"These long-serving members are pretty safe," he said. "In terms of primary elections, it's very hard to defeat an incumbent."

Incumbents are so safe that in 2022, 98% were reelected.

Incumbents have other huge advantages, like access to big donor bases, relationships in Washington and in their home states plus staff and experience.

Jennifer Wolak, a professor at Michigan State University, has been researching whether voters actually consider age when they cast their votes. She and her research partner studied why older people are over-represented in government. They found that people talk about concerns with age in politics; they say they want younger representation in surveys. But at the polls, older politicians keep winning.

"When it comes down to it, if you're going to vote for someone you could be like 'I would prefer a younger candidate but if I have two old candidates, I'm going to vote for my party candidate'," Wolak said. "People are much more likely to choose on candidate promises and party and ideology than age."

That's true for both parties.

Munger said this moment of public attention to age in politics really does create an opportunity.

"It's good that people are living longer and are healthier and that's great," Munger said. "And it might mean that the institutions of government that were developed at a time period when most people died by the age of 60 just are not appropriate for our current and better reality that we've created."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: September 3, 2023 at 12:00 AM EDT
An earlier version of this story reported the wrong date of Sen. Robert Byrd's death. Byrd died on June 28, 2010.
Kelsey Snell
Kelsey Snell is a Congressional correspondent for NPR. She has covered Congress since 2010 for outlets including The Washington Post, Politico and National Journal. She has covered elections and Congress with a reporting specialty in budget, tax and economic policy. She has a graduate degree in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. and an undergraduate degree in political science from DePaul University in Chicago.