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U.S. Senate is steadily aging, but parties don’t control members’ exits | CBC News


The U.S. Senate counts prominent octogenarians among its ranks, but no 20-somethings at all.

That’s because the U.S. Constitution requires senators to be at least 30 years old, with no such corresponding limit for elder persons serving in the role.

Yet recent events involving some of the oldest and most senior-ranking senators — Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and veteran Democrat Sen. Dianne Feinstein — have renewed questions about whether an age limit would be appropriate.

The Senate membership itself is steadily growing older, and Paul Quirk, a political science professor at the University of British Columbia, points out that the party standings between the Democrats and Republicans are tight.

Add that all up, and there are potential implications for both parties at a time when they need as many members as possible to be in good health and available for contentious votes in the Senate.

US. Senator John Barrasso reaches out to help U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell after McConnell abruptly stopped talking at a Washington news conference.
U.S. Sen. John Barrasso, left, reaches out to help Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell after the Republican seemingly froze and stopped talking at a news conference on Wednesday. McConnell later returned to answer questions from reporters. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

But there’s no simple way for parties to remove sitting senators, even if they hold concerns about the fitness of specific individuals serving in it.

“There isn’t any plausible way to force them to do it,” said Quirk, a specialist in U.S. politics. The only real option, he said, is to urge individuals to step down.

The entire discussion of the age-limit topic is enveloped by questions of ageism and political partisanship, as well as a lack of political will to change the status quo — if that is even possible on a legal basis — within a sharply divided political system.

“You’re not going to get a constitutional amendment in the United States on anything right now,” said Matthew Lebo, a political science professor at Western University in London, Ont.

An unexplained pause

On Wednesday, McConnell made headlines after he abruptly paused for roughly 20 seconds during a discussion with reporters and then left his own press conference, only to return a few minutes later.

The 81-year-old senator has since said he is “fine,” but he has not offered an explanation as to what happened.

WATCH | Mitch McConnell pauses during remarks to reporters: 

Mitch McConnell pauses during remarks, briefly leaves news conference

U.S. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell paused while speaking to reporters on July 26 and briefly left the news conference before later returning.

A spokesperson said Friday that McConnell, who also suffered a concussion earlier this year, intends to continue in his job as the Republican Senate leader, through next year’s election.

On the other side of the political aisle, Feinstein, a veteran Democratic senator from California, has also drawn attention for health-related issues she has been going through.

The 90-year-old Feinstein — who won’t seek re-election next year — has dealt with a bout of shingles, as well as encephalitis and Ramsay Hunt syndrome. Her health struggles caused her to be absent from the Senate for more than two months earlier this year.

She faced renewed questions about her health after she appeared to be confused during a Senate committee vote on Thursday. Feinstein began delivering remarks, rather than voting, as she was being called upon to do.

Both Feinstein and McConnell have served decades in the Senate, as has Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley, the sixth-longest serving senator in U.S. history, who will turn 90 in September.

This group, along with the soon-to-be 82-year-old Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, comprise the four oldest sitting senators.

WATCH | ‘Just say aye,’ fellow U.S. senator tells Dianne Feinstein:

‘Just say aye,’ fellow U.S. senator tells Dianne Feinstein during vote

When asked for her vote during a U.S. Senate appropriations hearing on July 27, Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein began reading from prepared remarks before fellow Democratic Sen. Patty Murray interjected to tell her saying ‘aye’ was sufficient.

The focus on the ages of these politicians has an underlying political current, said Western University’s Lebo.

And while polls may crop up suggesting interest  in age limits for elected officials, Lebo said they aren’t conducted in a political vacuum, and “the people who voted for a very old senator will typically be against the idea.”

He also noted that the job of a senator is complex and requires a lengthy build-up of experience to thrive in. Elder members have presumably long ascended through that learning curve.

Debate over the age of politicians isn’t restricted to the Senate: U.S. President Joe Biden, 80, has faced repeated questions about his age, though he is undeterred in plans to seek a second Oval Office term.

Jim Risch, a Republican senator for Idaho, turned 80 in May, while Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland is set to reach the same milestone this fall.

That means that by the end of the year, six per cent of the U.S. Senate will be 80 or older.

At least a dozen other senators are in their mid or late 70s, according to online data from the Biographical Directory of the United States Congress.

That means that by next year, nearly one-fifth of sitting U.S. senators will be older than all of the senators on this side of the border.

Canadian age limit

In Canada, senators — who are appointed, not elected, unlike U.S. senators — face mandatory retirement at age 75.

That’s the result of legislation brought forward in 1965. Senators previously appointed on a lifetime basis, however, were not required to stop working when they reached that age — though they were eligible for a pension, if they were 75 or older and chose to retire, within a certain time period of the legislation coming into effect.

The Senate of Canada is seen in Ottawa, with the Château Laurier appearing in the background of the same image.
The Senate of Canada building in Ottawa is shown in September 2021, with the nearby Château Laurier hotel appearing in the background. In Canada, senators face a mandatory retirement age of 75. (CBC/Radio-Canada)

“Few of the 36 over-age senators intend to step out immediately,” the Toronto Star reported in May 1965, after the accompanying bill was given final approval in the House of Commons.

J. Wesley Stambaugh, a 76-year-old senator, was the first to take that step, in June 1965. Sen. Nancy Hodges resigned from the Senate a few days later, also at 76.

Few of their contemporaries immediately followed their lead, with later reporting from the Globe and Mail noting that just five senators in this age group retired from the Senate by the following February.

David Croll was appointed to the Senate in 1955. The retirement option came into effect 10 years into his 36-year run in the Red Chamber.

The late Canadian senator David Croll is seen during a 1979 appearance on CBC's Front Page Challenge.
The late Canadian senator David Croll is shown on a 1979 broadcast of CBC’s Front Page Challenge. He served 36 years as a senator and remained active in his duties until his death at 91. (CBC Archives)

He would continue being highly engaged in his Senate work — and commuting from Toronto to Ottawa to do it — until his death at the age of 91.

Croll’s long tenure was mentioned in news coverage following his death.

“He was the senior member in the Senate,” the Globe and Mail reported. “Because he was appointed before the compulsory-retirement legislation was enacted, he was there for life.”

Croll put in an 11-hour workday at the Senate on the last day of his life, according to the paper.

Western University’s Lebo said the U.S. has seen its own share of long-serving senators who remained productive and enduringly popular with voters throughout their Senate careers.

“A lot of these people who have been there forever are icons,” Lebo said, pointing to the late John McCain, as one such example.

A July 2017 photo shows the late U.S. Senator John McCain talking to reporters in Washington, D.C.
The late U.S. senator John McCain speaks with reporters in Washington in July 2017. McCain served as a U.S. senator until his death in 2018 at the age of 81. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

McCain, a Republican presidential nominee who challenged Barack Obama for the White House in 2008, served in the Senate until his death at 81.

“When he could get to the Senate floor, he was as sharp as anybody in that room,” Lebo said.

Veteran senators have been front and centre in key political moments in recent times, too.

Weeks before his 81st birthday, then-senator Patrick J. Leahy presided over the second impeachment trial of former U.S. president Donald Trump in 2021. Leahy did not seek re-election to the Senate last year and is now retired. He was a sitting senator for 48 years.

U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy is seen presiding over the second impeachment trial for former U.S. president Donald Trump.
The now-retired U.S. senator Patrick Leahy is shown during the second impeachment trial for former U.S. president Donald Trump in February 2021. Leahy was a U.S. senator for 48 years. ( Images)

Change seems unlikely

UBC’s Quirk said he thinks it’s unlikely that an age limit would be imposed for U.S. senators, in part because they would have to vote in favour of halting their own participation in Senate life as older adults.

At the same time, any change to the U.S. Constitution would be very difficult, requiring high levels of support from the House of Representatives and Senate, as well as the states.

Generally speaking, Quirk said, in an institution like the U.S. Senate, the inability of a few members to participate in policy-making shouldn’t be an insurmountable issue.

“There is generally less urgency about this kind of problem in a legislature because other members can take over the work,” he said.

But the wrinkle in the U.S. Senate comes with tight party standings that make members’ participation in votes more important.

Western University’s Lebo similarly said he believes that “nothing will change” on the age-limit front.

He said he also thinks many voters want to be in the driver’s seat as to whom they elect — or don’t elect — to office.

“Americans want to protect their ability to vote for who they want,” Lebo said.


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