CullmanTimes.com - Cullman, Alabama

Opinion

January 3, 2013

COMMENTARY: Slate's Explainer - Democracy or gerontocracy?

The House of Representatives passed an agreement to prevent across-the-board tax increases on Tuesday. A majority of House Republicans opposed the measure, which had been negotiated by the Senate on Monday. Ohio Rep. Steven LaTourette, R, told his colleagues, "We should not take a package put together by a bunch of sleep-deprived octogenarians on New Year's Eve." Are our legislators getting older?

Yes. The 111th Congress, which took office in 2009, was the oldest in U.S. history, with an average age of 57 in the House and 63 in the Senate. (The sitting 112th Congress is only slightly younger.) At the time, many reporters pointed out the creeping gray in the U.S. Capitol and speculated about the significance of changes in the ages of our representatives. It's best not to read too much into the numbers, though. The average age in Congress has remained within a rather small range since World War II. The average age in the Senate was 59 in 1945, compared to 62 in 2011. The House has aged more substantially, with the average rising from 53 in 1945 to 57 in 2011. Between those years, average age fluctuated irregularly.

Dips and surges in the age of our legislators probably have less to do with our attitudes toward the elderly than with views about incumbents. The youngest Senate in recent history took office in 1981, when Ronald Reagan's victory swept Republicans into the majority for the first time in almost 30 years and dropped the average age to less than 53. It should also be noted that median age tends to be slightly more stable over time than average age, especially in the Senate: A handful of octogenarians and nonagenarians among 100 can markedly influence the average. In the record-breaking 111th Congress, for example, Robert Byrd of West Virginia began the term as Senate president pro tempore at the age of 91. When Byrd died, Hawaii's Daniel Inouye, then 85, assumed the office.

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