I am ready for them to retire. All of them.
By “them” I mean the handful of elected officials who refuse to acknowledge that the demands of public service eventually overwhelm their declining cognitive skills, energy, stamina, and availability to the point they undermine the public good. In short, they stay too long in jobs that are too important to be left to those who are no longer capable of performing them at the highest level.
The current poster child for this phenomenon is Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, who at 89 refuses to retire until the completion of her current term in 2025. She has battled a number of health-related issues recently, including a severe case of shingles complicated by encephalitis that kept her away from the Senate for several weeks.
But Feinstein is hardly alone in attempting to deny or slow the onrush of time. Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina stayed in office until he was past 100. Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia died in office at 92, and Thad Cochran of Mississippi ran for re-election at 76 despite severe health problems that eventually forced his retirement and led to his death at 82. The list is endless.
And it is easy to understand why they hold on for so long. We all want to remain vital and relevant and to pursue meaningful careers for as long as possible. We want to retire on our own terms, and we all have more work we would like to do. For politicians, especially the ones who serve for the right reasons, there is also often the sense that their job and their career and their identify are one and the same, that they are answering a call to public service that demands they fight for their beliefs until the end. That sense of mission can blind them to the joys that can be found in other careers or in retirement, and they are just as prone as the rest of us to deny their gradually declining performance and insist they are as vital as when they were young even when everyone around them knows better.
Moreover, there are profound perks to serving as an elected office at the national level, particularly in the U.S. Senate. There is prestige, the thrill of public recognition, being the guest of honor at lavish fund-raisers, free parking at Washington, D.C., airports, free health care, being asked by lobbyists and the press to comment on the pressing issues of the day, and being surrounded by obsequious staff eager to satisfy your every whim and to discourage you from retiring because if you give up your job they lose theirs.
Then there are the political advantages of staying on forever. Seniority translates into leadership positions on key committees, more money for your home state, and typically more attention from donors. Those factors mean more power battle for the causes you believe in or to fight against the ones you hate, and they can encourage a belief that you are irreplaceable. Who else has your experience? Who else will know what to do in a crisis? And so on.
For all these reasons and more, the U.S. Senate has been called the most exclusive retirement community in the world. The average age of Senators is close to 65. They have an in-house physician, get their prescription medication delivered to their offices, and typically work Monday through Thursday with long weekends and long recesses when Congress is not in session. For those from solidly red or blue states who face little or no risk of defeat in the next election, there is little or no risk of defeat in the next election, which means many Senators have the equivalent of lifetime tenure.
But should they? Should anyone, for that matter? As a matter of federal law, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 makes mandatory retirement generally illegal in the United States. But there are exceptions, notably for military service, many federal law enforcement agencies, and industries and occupations regulated by law. Pilots, for example, must retire at 65; air traffic controllers face mandatory retirement between 56 and 61; the Foreign Service requires retirement at 65; and most federal law enforcement agencies force people out at 57.
At the state level, and in most foreign countries, retirement is also required in many occupations. Most state judges are retired by 65 or 70, for example, just as they are overseas. In fact, the United States is along among advanced democracies in allowing lifetime service for federal and Supreme Court judges.
Why does this matter? Because the 118th Congress, the one currently in session, is the third oldest since 1789. Because Donald Trump is 76 and Joe Biden is 80. Because the 10 oldest U.S. Senators range from 76 to 89 years old. And because the responsibility for leading the United States is extraordinarily important and should trump any other considerations, be they personal loyalty, vanity, political party, or anything else. How can it make sense for us to say airline pilots have a job so demanding that they should be barred by law from doing it after 65 but U.S. Senators and Representatives and presidents should serve until we vote them out or they admit they are no longer up to the task?
I am not an ageist, my friends. I am not saying senior citizens should not be allowed to work. But some jobs are more demanding and more important than others. They just are. And it is time we admitted that and began discussing a mandatory retirement age for elected federal officials. My vote would be to set the age at 75.
That would make the next presidential election interesting, wouldn’t it?
Lance Janda holds a PhD in History from the University of Oklahoma and has more than 30 years of experience in higher education. He is the author of “Stronger Than Custom: West Point and the Admission of Women”, among other works.