Not at this age: How old is too old to run for Congress and the White House?

This combination of pictures created on September 29, 2020 shows Democratic Presidential candidate and former US Vice President Joe Biden (L) and US President Donald Trump speaking during the first presidential debate at the Case Western Reserve Universit

One of the most frequent questions we receive from students when we are teaching about the U.S. Constitution is: why are there minimum age requirements for federally elected offices, but not maximum age requirements?

We often give the standard responses, such as how the average life expectancy when the Constitution was ratified is significantly shorter than it is today. Responses like this often do not satisfy our students and feel disingenuous to us.

The students’ question is particularly salient today, with the oldest occupant of the White House considering a run for a second term at 82 years old and many of the leaders in Congress—especially House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) —being over 80 years old. These two are relative youngsters compared to Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who will turn 90 in 2023. Grassley is running for reelection this year and Feinstein has not ruled out a reelection bid in 2024.

In a Meredith Poll we conducted last month, we found that over three-quarters of all respondents favored amending the Constitution to set maximum age limits for running for federal office—Congress and the White House. Support for an upper limit was universal with political partisans, people with all levels of educational attainment, and, most interestingly, respondents across all age categories—young to old—supporting a maximum age for serving.

We also asked what the maximum age should be for those serving in the presidency and Congress. Although a slight plurality of respondents indicated that 50 should be the maximum age for those serving in those offices, a majority of respondents thought the maximum age should be 65-75. Also interesting was that Democrats, women, and those with less educational attainment felt that maximum age should be on the younger side, while Republicans, males, and those with more education felt the maximum age should be on the higher side. If we followed the majority and set a maximum age of 75 for serving in Congress, 22, or about 5 percent, of the seats in the 117th Congress would be open.

Although we might be accused of ageism, we think there are legitimate reasons for considering amending the eligibility requirements in Articles I & II of the Constitution.

First, dementia and other cognitive declines increase with age, as many studies indicate. Although many older Americans function well at older ages, federal elected officials are not immune from Alzheimer’s and other cognitive issues. We know that there have been cases in the past where elected officials have become unable to perform their duties, such that their staff members have to compensate. For example, Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), who served in the Senate until the age of 100, had to have help with everything from what questions to ask in hearings to physically walking to the floor of the Senate. His chief of staff became his office’s chief decision-maker, which means that an unelected staff person was making decisions for an elected member of Congress. This threatens democratic legitimacy.

Second, although there have been more people elected to Congress in recent election cycles who are under 40, membership in both chambers is still disproportionately much older than the American population. According to the Congressional Research Service, the average age of House members is 58.4 years and that of Senate members is 64.3 years. By comparison, the median age of U.S. residents is 38.2, and nearly half of the population is a member of the generation Z (born 1997 or later) or millennial (born 1981-1996) generations.

There are important reasons to want more younger Americans to serve in public office. First, political science research has found that citizens feel higher levels of external efficacy—the idea that government listens to your concerns and reacts to them—when their representatives look more like them, which is called descriptive representation. Therefore, we could expect higher levels of efficacy and participation among younger Americans if there were more of them in Congress. Additionally, a maximum age would allow younger elected officials with a better understanding of contemporary issues to make decisions on issues like online privacy or the impact of the student loan burden on the nation’s economy. Mark Zuckerberg’s congressional testimony in 2018, in which he infamously had to explain how the internet works to senators, likely would have gone very differently had there been a few younger Americans asking him questions.

The same arguments also apply to the presidency. Although we’ve had younger presidents, like Barack Obama, elected in this century, the last two presidents—Trump and Biden—are of an entirely different generation than most Americans. With the possibility that they could face each other in a rematch in 2024, when Trump is 77 and Biden is 82, the question raised by our survey is applicable: how old is too old?

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