Analysis: Old is the new young on Capitol Hill
May 1, 2019
The old baseball star Satchel Paige is supposed to have said: Age is a question of mind over matter. If you don’t mind it does not matter.
On Capitol Hill, old seems to be the new young.
In the House of Representatives, the top three leaders are all seniors. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., is 79 years old. Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., is 80, and Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., is also 80.
While you can actually start serving in the House at age 25 and age 30 in the Senate, the 2018 elections brought in a much younger group of lawmakers – including the two youngest, both from New York, Democrats Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, 29 and Elise Stefanik, who is 30. Both Pelosi and Hoyer have served in Congress longer than the two freshmen have been alive. Pelosi (32 years), Hoyer (38 years) and Clyburn (26 years), together have served for a combined 96 years.
While the Congress overall got younger with the election of 89 new representatives and 9 new senators, the average age of the new members is 49 years old. Overall, though, the average age in the new 116th Congress is 58.6 years old, which despite the turnover, remains the same as it was in the last Congress.
The new Congress, however, is a much more diverse group, including at least 25 of the new members who are Hispanic, Native American and people of color. All of the newly elected senators are white. There are 102 women now serving in the House, including 35 new freshmen women. (In addition, four of six non-voting House members, who represent the District of Columbia and U.S. territories, are women.) Five new women were elected to the U.S. Senate, more than making up for the two female senators who lost their re-election bids. All told, a record 25 women will be serving in the new Senate.
The record number of women sworn into Congress on Jan. 3 included Carol Miller, a 68-year-old bison farmer from West Virginia; Ocasio-Cortez, the 29-year-old former bartender from Queens, and Debra Haaland, a 58-year-old Native American single mother from New Mexico. The oldest freshman member of Congress is former Clinton administration Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala, who started to represent the Miami area after winning election last November at age 77. The most unique background though is Rep. Sharice Davids, D-Kans., a gay Native American, who is also a mixed martial arts fighter.
More than 20% of the new lawmakers are millennials, making this a particularly fresh-faced freshman class. But many lawmakers are already seniors. As of October 2018, the average age of the 115th Congress was 57.8 years for the House and 61.8 for the Senate. That number went down slightly as a result of the November elections. What’s unusual is that the average American is about 20 years younger than their representative in Congress.
The oldest members of Congress are in the Senate, where Sens. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, and Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., are both 85, and Sens. James Inhofe, R-Okla., and Richard Shelby, R-Ala., are both 84. In the House, Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, is 84 and has served the longest among current lawmakers – 46 years. There are a few other veteran members like Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kans., who was born April 20, 1936. He served 16 years in the House and 21 in the U.S. Senate, and before that was a congressional staffer for 13 more years.
The oldest House member is Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Tex., who is 83 years old, and has served in the Congress for 26 years since 1993. Before that, the African American lawmaker from Dallas served in the Texas state House and Senate, for 21 years.
Recently retired from Congress were Rep. Sam Johnson, R-Texas, who retired at the end of the last session at age 88. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, retired last year at age 87. Rep. John Conyers, D-Michigan, who served more than 50 years resigned at nearly 90, after a sexual harassment scandal involving staffers surfaced in 2017. Also leaving at the end of the last session was 87-year-old Rep. Sander Levin, also a Michigan Democrat, who served in Congress for 35 years.
The record for longest consecutive service in Congress also belongs to a Michigan lawmaker, Rep. John Dingell, who spent 59 years and 21 days of uninterrupted tenure in Congress. Dingell passed away at age 89, on February 7.
Vermont Democratic Sen. Pat Leahy, 79, and Iowa Republican Sen. Charles Grassley, 85, have both served in the Congress for 44 years so far. On the longevity-record-setting front, the up and comer to watch though is Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., who has been in Congress for 42 years already at the age of 73. But for Markey to break Dingell’s record of 59 years, he would have to serve another 18 years, when he would be 91.
Presidential candidates all over the age spectrum too
Again, old is the new young when it comes to at least some of the 2020 presidential candidates. On Election Day 2020, if they were to win, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, would be 79 years, 1 month and 26 days old; former vice president Joe Biden would be 77 years old, 11 months and 14 days; President Donald Trump, if he were to be re-elected would be 74 years, 4 months and 20 days; while Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass, would be 71 years, 4 months and 12 days; and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, would be 69 years, 8 months and 25 days.
On the other end of the scale, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-Tex., would be 48 years old, 1 month and 8 days; former San Antonio Mayor and HUD Secretary Julian Castro would be 46 years old, 1 month and 20 days; Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, would be 39 years, 6 months and 22 days; and South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg would be 39 years, 9 months and 15 days, were they to win the election.
These calculations, courtesy of the National Review, which also noted that when Biden was first elected to the Senate in 1972, Buttigieg, Gabbard and Castro had not been born yet and O’Rourke was two years old.
Also in the what’s old is new again category, are some supposedly “new ideas.” In fact, new ideas sometimes are variations of old retreads. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., the self-declared “democratic socialist”, and the new favorite target of the political right – has suggested that people would have to “start paying their fair share in taxes” to underwrite her “green new deal,” which would generate all of the nation’s energy power from reliable sources and eliminating industrial greenhouse gas emissions. She suggests that the tax rate for the wealthiest Americans (millionaires) could be set at 60 to 70 percent to pay for it.
For those of us old enough to remember the 1950s, the top tax bracket back then was a marginal tax rate of 91 percent. Now, that’s an old idea being revived as new. Also on the “old is new” front: In the past century or so, humans have fought and won their fair share of battles with disease. Vaccines over time defeated smallpox. Antibiotics conquered scarlet fever and insecticides scaled back mosquito-borne illnesses.
But despite these successes, some diseases appear to be making a comeback as you might be aware with outbreaks of measles, and mumps recently and even once-lost pathogens like cholera are creeping back into medical histories. Ok, some sometimes old is new isn’t such a good thing, Maybe it’s time for another “back to the future” movie?