Lawmakers are waking up to the realities of 'gerontocracy.' But don't expect them to do anything about it.

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Lawmakers are waking up to the realities of 'gerontocracy.' But don't expect them to do anything about it.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, have both faced concerns about their health.Tom Williams and Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images
  • Age limits remain popular, and lawmakers have begun to wake up to the realities of gerontocracy.
  • But Insider found that they're still far from ready to embrace sweeping changes.
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Americans are growing increasingly frustrated with the "gerontocracy" that persists at the highest levels of their government. And lawmakers, slowly but surely, are beginning to listen.

Sen. Mitt Romney specifically cited his own age when he announced his retirement last week, noting that he would be "in my mid-eighties" by the end of another six-year term.

"Frankly, it's time for a new generation of leaders," the Utah Republican said in a video announcing his decision. "They're the ones that need to make the decisions that will shape the world they will be living in."

That doesn't mean everyone's heeding Romney's advice.

"I'm not letting Mitt Romney tell me when to end my political career," Sen. Lindsey Graham told reporters at the Capitol last week. "I'm going to keep doing the job as long as I think I'm able to do it."

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Graham, a 68-year-old South Carolina Republican, even joked that he represented the new generation of leadership that Romney was calling for since he replaced Strom Thurmond, the only senator to have turned 100 while in office.

Some lawmakers still bat away questions about age altogether.

"I believe everyone deserves the kind of dignity to make their own choices," said Democratic Sen. John Fetterman of Pennsylvania. "Ultimately, the voters in their respective states have made that choice, and you know, enough already."

But in the wake of Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein's declining health, the multiple freeze-ups of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, and voters' loathing about the the likely rematch between the 80-year-old President Joe Biden and the 77-year-old Donald Trump, the gerontocratic state of American politics has become difficult for lawmakers to ignore.

Tackling gerontocracy 'without being ageist'

Lawmakers are waking up to the realities of 'gerontocracy.' But don't expect them to do anything about it.
"It shouldn't be a radical thing to talk about term limits when it comes down to Congress," Rep. Maxwell Frost, a Florida Democrat, told Insider.Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

As popular as it is in the abstract, enacting an age limit would require a constitutional amendment, making it a near-impossible feat. And last year, when Insider tackled the issue as part of our "Red, White, and Gray" series, the idea was summarily shrugged off by lawmakers of all stripes.

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Some things have changed in the last year.

A wave of retirements has left the House, and particularly Democratic leadership, younger than it was at the time. And the Senate's newest members are younger than the median senator, according to the Pew Research Service.

Congress also got its first Gen Z member — 26-year-old Rep. Maxwell Frost, a Democrat from Florida.

Frost understands that there's an issue, and that the public is craving change. As he spoke with Insider last week outside the Capitol, a young man approached the young congressman to shake his hand, telling him that he's an inspiration, and that "we need more Gen Z up in the Congress."

"I didn't set that up," Frost said afterward. Later on, an elderly Democratic lawmaker, sporting hearing aids, gave the congressman a pat on the back as he passed by.

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The solution that Frost proposes has been kicked around, primarily by conservative activists, since well before he was born.

"I look at things like term limits," said Frost, stressing that he hasn't settled on the right number of terms. "It shouldn't be a radical thing to talk about term limits when it comes down to Congress. I mean, they exist for almost every other elected office."

He also opposes age limits, arguing that people should be able to "choose who they want, no matter how old they are."

Democratic Rep. Ro Khanna of California was the first Democrat in Congress to call for Feinstein's resignation earlier this year.

But even he argues against age limits, saying that changing the political system — and adopting his own proposals to institute 12-year term limits on members of Congress, banning stock trading, and enacting other ethics reforms — would mitigate the issue.

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"I think the political reform plan would actually address it, without being ageist," said Khanna, 47. "All of that is getting at this problem, that people have stuck around in this town for 40, 50 years."

'I don't think it's a problem to be old'

Lawmakers are waking up to the realities of 'gerontocracy.' But don't expect them to do anything about it.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein waits in the Senate subway.Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Voters in North Dakota may vote on a proposal to enact age limits as soon as next year if organizers gather enough signatures, though it could face court challenges.

Republican Sen. John Hoeven, formerly the state's governor, said he was open to the idea. He also questioned its feasibility.

"Ultimately, I think people get a chance to vote on a candidate and they can take that into consideration when they vote for the individual," Hoeven told Insider. "Different people age differently, you know, somebody at a younger age may have more impacts due to aging than somebody at an older age. It's hard to have a one-size-fits-all too."

As Insider previously reported, there are very real consequences to the growing so-called "gerontocracy." A former lawmaker even dished about how lawmakers would gossip about which of their colleagues needed unelected staff to handle much of their workload.

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The reality is that the seniority system that has dominated Capitol Hill means that lawmakers are often reaching the peak of their power just as the jostling for them to step aside kicks up. It's why the topic can spark a mixture of humor, hesitation, and frustration when raised when lawmakers directly.

"I think 90 years old is a reasonable limit," Democratic Rep. Steve Cohen of Tennessee, 74, told Insider.

Others, such as Democratic Rep. Marie Gluesenkamp Perez of Washington, talk about the issue in the simple terms of representative government.

"It's not that we need only young people is that we want a reflective body that and that's income and age, gender, parenthood, homeownership, like everything," said Gluesenkamp Perez, one of the youngest members of Congress at age 35. "I don't think it's a problem to be old, I think it's a problem to have a lack of diversity."

Other lawmakers were quick to point out that their colleagues can age differently. Lawmakers far younger than Feinstein and McConnell, such as Democratic Sens. Ben Ray Luján of New Mexico, 51, and John Fetterman of Pennsylvania, 54, have also missed time at the Capitol due to their own health issues.

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Multiple lawmakers described the current reality not as a problem with a generation holding power for too long, but rather as younger Americans being unwilling to seize it themselves.

"I think America has a 'not enough young people entering political leadership' problem," Republican Sen. JD Vance of Ohio told Insider. "A gerontocracy is what you get when not enough young people are running, and not enough young people are interested in the process."

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