The US doesn’t need age limits – it needs term limits

Introducing carefully thought-out term limits to Congress can help solve the issues that come from an ageing political class while addressing other issues in American politics.

US Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) is brought to a Senate Judiciary Committee executive business meeting to vote on legislation and pending nominations before the committee, on Capitol Hill in Washington, US, May 11, 2023.
US Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) is brought to a Senate Judiciary Committee executive business meeting to vote on legislation and pending nominations before the committee, on Capitol Hill in Washington, US, May 11, 2023. [Kevin Lamarque/Reuters]

A perennial debate in American politics has been stirred up again: are our leaders in Washington too old, and if so, what should be done about it? The question has gained new significance as Joe Biden, already the oldest president in United States history at 80 years old, has officially launched his re-election campaign. At the moment, he is most likely headed for a rematch against Donald Trump, who turned 77 earlier this month.

Meanwhile, over in the Senate, Mitch McConnell, the longest-serving party leader in the chamber’s history, recently returned to work after injuries from a fall sidelined him for weeks, the second time he’s had such an accident in recent years. And Dianne Feinstein’s apparent mental decline has thrown a wrench in the Democratic legislative and judicial agenda, as her prolonged absence negates the party’s razor-thin majority.

These prominent examples have revived the debate over what to do about America’s ageing leadership. A number of commentators and politicians have called for the implementation of a maximum age limit for higher elected office. Others are pushing for mental competency tests for older officials.

Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley, for example, recently made the argument for a “basic mental exam” for politicians over the age of 75 in a Fox News op-ed.

For the most part, Haley’s article is just a mix of mildly reasonable arguments for cognitive testing and political potshots (it is hard not to notice she directly names Biden and Feinstein, but does not mention Trump or McConnell). But in the very first paragraph, the  51-year-old former US ambassador to the United Nations mentions a precaution that could actually put at rest all concerns over ageing politicians in America: term limits.

Indeed, term limits – rather than age limits, cognitive tests or other schemes – would substantially solve the issues that come from an ageing political class while also addressing other issues in American politics.

The best case for term limits is the most prominent one that already exists in the US: the two-term maximum for presidents.

The fact that this limit is not preventing Biden or Trump from running should not be seen as a failure of term limits. The list of things that should disqualify the former president from seeking another term is incredibly long, but his age is the absolute least of our concerns about another Trump presidency.

But what about Biden; is he, in fact, too old to be president now? Putting aside the disingenuous memes created by his opponents, there are no obvious signs that Biden is lacking the mental acumen and physical dexterity to serve competently for another four years.

Of course, we often experience a gradual decline with age, but the ages at which notable impairments set in are incredibly variable. Without a clear line to draw concerning when a person’s faculties decline enough to hinder their public service, any upper age limit placed on elected office would be arbitrary. The presidential two-term limit, and a built-in successor in the vice president, already insures against the dangers of elderly candidates and provides voters with the opportunity to manage their own perceived risks in choosing their preferred candidate.

In other elected offices the lack of term limits is paving the way for myriad problems. The average age of members of Congress, for example, has reached record levels. Outside of a few examples like Feinstein, however, the main problem with an ageing Congress is not the declining mental acuity of members – it is their interests and priorities.

Older members of Congress tend to focus on the concerns of seniors while either neglecting or not understanding issues that are greater priorities for younger constituents, such as climate change or social media regulation.

Still, it can be said that the ageing Congress is just a reflection of the  American population as a whole skewing older over time. And all the discussions about ageing politicians mask a separate, related problem: that of entrenched politicians.

While most of us realise that there is an incumbency advantage for politicians already in office, we probably don’t realise the magnitude: in the 2022 election, Ballotpedia reports that congressional incumbents won 98 percent of their re-election bids; in 41 states, every congressional incumbent running for re-election won.

The incumbent advantage rests upon name recognition and massive fundraising advantages for those already holding office, which in turn raises serious concerns about the role of big donors and special interests exerting undue influence through entrenched incumbents. These concerns, coupled with any legitimate concerns about the competency of older elected officials, highlight the need for term limits as a tool to make representation more reflective of, and responsive to, the needs and interests of constituents.

Simply implementing term limits for legislators is not a panacea for the ills of poor governance or corruption. Studies of state government show that state legislators are more prone to high spending and corruption when they do not face the prospect of re-election and are thus not constrained by voters or public opinion. But these incentive problems can be mitigated by implementing a consecutive limit rather than a lifetime limit. Allowing for unlimited total terms but limiting consecutive terms that can be served would weigh against members being elected past their ability to serve while also incentivising them to remain responsive to their constituents.

A limit on consecutive terms would also serve as mitigation for the pernicious effects of incumbency bias, whereby sitting members of Congress enjoy substantial advantages for re-election, allowing them and the interests they represent to become entrenched over time. Requiring a longstanding member of Congress to “sit out” a term would allow a fresh alternative to try their hand at the job. Furthermore, it would shape up a subsequent election in which the current incumbent and the previous longstanding member of Congress could run against one another, giving voters a clear opportunity to compare the performances of the two while lessening the distorting effects of incumbency. And for elected officials who may be experiencing decline due to advanced age or health concerns, having to sit out a term will likely make it easier to decide to retire rather than prolong their careers indefinitely.

The obvious benefits of a carefully crafted term limit do not mean that it would be easy to implement such a policy. Implementing constitutional amendments is prohibitively difficult in the US – a safeguard for the system that protects institutions like unlimited congressional terms or the Electoral College. And, by definition, the current set of legislators who would be required to reform the system are the ones who have succeeded within the status quo and thus have a strong personal interest in preserving the rules that have benefitted them.

But we have seen substantial movement on term limits in the past. Between 1990 and 2000, during a time when the Republican “Contract with America” platform supported term limits, 15 states enacted term limits for their legislatures. One key to the success of these provisions is that they did not go into effect until years after their passage and some were written to exclude terms already served from counting against the limit. Current lawmakers are much more inclined to bind their successors than themselves. If this tactic were taken to get Congress to pass an amendment on term limits, the benefits would take time to materialise, but the current Congress would at least be leaving an improved system for younger voters to eventually enjoy.

Demanding carefully crafted term limits would go a long way towards fixing many of the ills in Washington. Major political reforms are never easy, especially when they have to compete against the interests of those tasked with implementing the reforms. But civic-minded legislators owe it to their constituents, present and future, to create a system that is more inclined and capable of responding to the needs and desires of the population. And voters would be doing themselves and their children a huge favour by demanding greater accountability from their elected officials and supporting efforts to reform our institutions accordingly.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.