Congress Has Too Many Geezers

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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Henry Waxman, one of the outstanding legislators of the last century, announced today that he's not running for re-election. It's the end of one of the most important careers in the history of the House of Representatives

Joining George Miller in stepping down after this term, Waxman also puts an end to the era of the Watergate Babies. Since I've already written about that recently, and about the influence that can be wielded by individual Members of Congress, instead I'll take a quick look at one thing that made Waxman and Miller so effective: They served at a time when it was easy for young politicians to make it to Congress.

Waxman, born in 1939, was 35 when he first took office in the House. Miller, born in 1945, wasn't yet 30.

Those days are gone. Take a look at the Class of 2013, the new members in the current 113th Congress. How many of the 70 newbies were born in 1977 or later (and therefore as young or younger than Waxman)? Just eight. Which happens to equal the number born during the 1940s. In fact, 16 of the 70 had already celebrated their 60th birthdays before being sworn in to the House, matching the 16 who weren't yet 40. Another 30 were in their 50s, meaning that 46 of the 70 new bloods were actually pretty old blood.

I don't have a full breakdown of the Watergate babies, but I can throw some more birth years at you for those first elected to the House in 1974: Tom Harkin, 1939; Max Baucus, 1941; Chris Dodd, 1944; Les Aucoin, 1942; Tim Wirth, 1939; Norm Mineta, 1931; Paul Tsongas, 1941; Toby Moffett, 1944; Bob Edgar, 1943; Bob Carr, 1943; and the youngest, Tom Downy, 1949 (the names come from these sources). Okay, Paul Simon was born in 1928, but still, it's pretty clearly a very different age grouping.

I've saved the best for last. There is one more Watergate Baby in the current House -- Rick Nolan of Minnesota. He was born in 1943. What makes him special? He retired from the House after the 1980 election, but returned in 2013. Yup, he's one of those new members born in the 1940s.

In fact, a large part of the Senate's aging character stems from older entering Senators, not from veteran Senators hanging on for longer.

There's nothing wrong with people coming to politics, and Congress, later in life. But if we don't get 30-somethings (and some 20-somethings) in the mix, we are going to have an overly geriatric legislature. That is increasingly the case.

I'm not sure exactly why it's happening. It could be because more individual wealth is needed for House campaigns these days. It could be, in part, because the field of candidates has opened up to include women, and maybe others who were excluded in the past and take a little longer to stake their political claim. So there may be good and bad reasons. Still, we could use a few more House careers like those of George Miller and Henry Waxman.

(Jonathan Bernstein covers U.S. politics for Bloomberg View. He is co-editor of "The Making of the Presidential Candidates 2012." Follow him on Twitter at @JBPlainblog.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

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