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May 22, 2012 10:14 AM Old New Senators

By Jonathan Bernstein

You know how I’m always complaining about how old Members of Congress have become? Well, I learned something new about it: it turns out that newly elected Senators now are a lot older than newly elected Senators used to be. I wrote it up for a Salon piece over the weekend, so check that out for the data, and for a terrific picture of 1972 Joe Biden that they found to put with it.

(Quick caveat: it’s a Salon column, not a proper study. I looked at four large Senate classes from the past, and the most recent three Senate classes, and there’s a gap of as much as a decade. Looks real to me, and that it will continue this cycle, but it is possible that it’s just a fluke, although I don’t think so).

Two things. I’ve complained about old Congresses quite a bit, but I haven’t really talked about consequences — I’m very reluctant to try to be very speculative about things like this. I’m not going to tell you that Congress would be more popular if the average Senator was 50 instead of 60, or that their age has anything to do with the feeling people have that Congress is out of touch…I don’t think there’s any way of knowing those things, and at any rate we don’t know it. But I will note one thing…I was reading Marc Ambinder’s list of ten things he learned while reporting in Washington, and two of them are about Washington being out of the current US mainstream on sex and drugs. If that’s true — and I don’t know that it is, but it may be — then I can’t imagine that it really helps that so many Senators and Members of the House were born before 1950.

The second thing is about causes. I really have no idea why incoming Senators have become much older. The commenters over at Salon were sure it was about money — that you have to be rich to be a Senator, and you’re more likely to be rich when you’re older — but that doesn’t seem right to me. I will note that Joe Biden was elected to the Senate at age 29 in the heyday of weak parties and strong, independent candidates, the kind that Alan Ehrenhalt wrote about in The United States of Ambition. Does something about the way candidates are selected in the current era of strong, networked parties yield older Senators?

Or is there some other good reason for the increasing age of incoming Senators? Anyone have any ideas?

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.
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