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As Congress gets older, one lawmaker makes the case for more 'generational diversity'

Rep. Dean Phillips, a Democrat from Minnesota, speaks on Capitol Hill in 2020. He would like to see 18-year term limits and more young people in Congress.
Stefani Reynolds
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Pool/AFP via Getty Images
Rep. Dean Phillips, a Democrat from Minnesota, speaks on Capitol Hill in 2020. He would like to see 18-year term limits and more young people in Congress.

Updated September 14, 2023 at 1:51 PM ET

How old is too old to serve in Congress? That's one query on the minds of many who are following the news out of Capitol Hill.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is facing questions about his health and political futureafter appearing to freeze at two different events this summer. The 81-year-old hasn't provided many answers, other than that he plans to finish his term.

California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who at 90 is the oldest member of the current Senate, has missed much of this session — and over 90 votes — due to health issues. She has resisted calls to step down, but confirmed this term will be her last.

Former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. — who stepped down as party leader after Democrats lost the House last fall — announced last week she will run for her seat again in 2024, surprising some political prognosticators. Pelosi, 83, has been in Congress for more than 35 years, with 20 of those spent in House Democratic leadership.

And it's not just that specific individuals and incidents have dominated headlines lately. They're reflective of a larger trend: Congress is steadily getting older.

The 118th Congress is the third-oldest since 1789, NBC News found, with the average age of lawmakers steadily increasing over the last four decades in particular.

The current median (or midpoint) age is 65 — an all-time high — for senators and 58 for representatives, USA Today reports. In contrast, the median age in the U.S. reached a record high of 38.9 years in 2022, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The minimum age for serving in Congress is 25 in the House and 30 in the Senate. And some younger members are starting to join the ranks, like Gen Z trailblazer Rep. Maxwell Frost, D-Fla., and 36-year-old Sen. Jon Ossoff, D-Ga., who became the first millennial senator when he was elected in 2021.

Many people would like to see more millennial and Gen Z representation in Congress — including some of the older guard.

On Wednesday, Utah Sen. Mitt Romney said he will not seek reelection next year, noting he would be in his mid-80s by the end of another term.

"It's time for a new generation of leaders," the 76-year-old Republican said in a video announcement. "They're the ones that need to make the decisions that will shape the world they will be living in."

Rep. Dean Phillips, D-Minn., agrees. At 54, he's one of the younger members of Congress. He's also one of his party's more outspoken critics of President Biden's reelection effort — largely due to age concerns — and made headlines for briefly flirting with the idea of running against him.

Phillips acknowledges that Congress needs the wisdom that comes with decades of experience. But he's also worried about what he calls "a growing lack of generational diversity."

Phillips tells Morning Edition's Steve Inskeep that he doesn't want to see a Congress "filled with 28-year-olds," rather one with more diversity of age. Phillips says that's especially important as lawmakers try to address challenges like artificial intelligence and climate change, which deeply affect younger generations.

"They should be participants in the debate, deliberation and policy formation," he adds. "And right now, we simply lack the expertise and experience in those capacities, in no small part, I think, because of the demographics of a Congress that is frankly, just a little bit too old."

He says there should be more conversations about the need for certain longtime lawmakers to step down, and for the next generations to "start raising their hand, standing up and participating." He's also advocating for term limits in the House and Senate (and the Supreme Court), for everyone.

"I see how that both opens doors for younger generations to become public servants," Phillips says. "And I also see how it changes the behavior of outgoing members of Congress who feel liberated to vote their conscience and not necessarily their party line."

Age vs. experience

Phillips reiterates that experience is a "very effective toolkit in Congress and in governance," pointing to Pelosi as an example.

Phillips says there's an important role for Pelosi to play in mentoring and advising new House leadership. And he calls her ability to raise money "unprecedented and very much necessary."

As "Speaker Emerita," Pelosi raked in almost $2.1 million in the first six months of 2023, The Hill reports. Her successor, House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, has said he speaks with her "consistently" for guidance.

Pelosi herself told supporters at an announcement event on Friday that colleagues had been calling her with their own "non-advice," asking her to remain in Congress.

Notably, Pelosi's health hasn't been the subject of public commentary or concern.

And chronological age isn't necessarily a barometer for biological age, as University of Illinois at Chicago public health professor S. Jay Olshansky has told NPR.

The older we get, the higher the risk of something going wrong, he said, though that doesn't mean people in their 80s are inherently more or less capable of governing.

"How would you determine what the proper number is?" Olshansky added. "It's just simply age discrimination if you try to do something like that. ... And look, if you're going to use age as the primary factor, you're never going to vote for somebody over the age of 40."

Phillips, for his part, says it's not about ageism.

"I just believe that we are seeing too many circumstances of people who happen to be both old and also facing sometimes debilitating health issues, being in positions of power, influence in the highest levels of government," Phillips says. "And I do think we should be having those conversations about whether that's in the best interests of both the Congress and the country."

He says while he may be more vocal about this than many of his colleagues, he's not alone in his beliefs. And he thinks many Americans who pay attention would agree that "there are probably too many people who are hanging on for personal reasons."

"It's their identity and it was their profession, and there's a very distinct challenge amongst members of Congress in letting go," he adds. "And that's something that staff and family and friends and ultimately constituents have to decide."

Pros and cons of term limits

Phillips isn't the first lawmaker to advocate for term limits at his workplace. Republican senators have proposed an amendment that would limit senators to two six-year terms and representatives to three two-year terms, for instance.

Phillips would prefer a cap of 18 years, which would mean three full Senate terms and nine full House terms. He comes from the private sector, where the median tenure of an S&P 500 CEO is under 5 years (not to say some don't "boomerang" back).

Phillips says 18 years allows plenty of time to understand the system, build relationships and make an impact.

"But when we have too many members that are around for 30, 40, sometimes 50 years, we are literally precluding participation," he says. "And I believe the United States is facing a crisis of participation in its politics."

Sixteen states currently have term limits — of either eight or 12 years — for legislators, according to a tracker from the National Conference of State Legislatures. Most of those were enacted in the 1990s and early 2000s, with North Dakota the latest to do so in 2022.

And there appears to be broad public support for some type of term limit at the federal level. A 2023 survey from the University of Maryland's School of Public Policy found that 83% of registered voters nationally favored a constitutional amendment to that effect, with little difference between parties.

Some critics argue that if political leaders had term limits, they would constantly be thinking about their next job and perhaps more likely to be influenced by business interests.

But Phillips says that's happening already, most notably with the revolving door between Congress and lobbying. If anything, he argues, an 18-year term limit would lessen the pressure lawmakers face to always hold the party line.

"When one feels liberated to speak the truth, to say the quiet part out loud, to vote the way that their conscience dictates, that might be in the best interests of the country, not for a re-election," he says. "That is a very powerful antidote to the disease facing our Congress."

The broadcast interview was produced by Nina Kravinsky, Vince Pearson and Paige Waterhouse, and edited by Jan Johnson.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.