Old age is creeping up on Congress

On average, the 535 lawmakers in the current Congress are as old as they’ve ever been.

A Congressional Research Service report that began circulating on Capitol Hill this past week reveals that the average congressman is 57.8 years old and the average senator is 61.8 years old. That’s just a small nudge down the aging path for the 435-member House and 100-member Senate, but it led the report’s compiler to conclude that the average age of the currently sitting 115th Congress “is among the highest of any Congress in history.”

The average age of House members has slowly advanced through the current and last three Congresses, growing just 1.1 years since the 112th Congress when the average age was 56.7 years old.

The Senate has been older in the past. The average senator serving at the start of the 112th Congress in January 2011 was 62.2 years old—just 0.4 years older than the current average.

Of the various measurements of Congress, none are more critical than a lawmaker’s longevity (that is, his or her age) and seniority (that is, the amount of time served in Congress). As lawmakers grow older, it tends to become a campaign issue for voters. As lawmakers pile up seniority, it leads them into the chairmanships of the House and Senate committees and subcommittees. It presents a dilemma for voters who must decide which is more important—a lawmaker’s advancing age or his years of accumulated power.

In terms of seniority, the average length of service for House members at the start of the 115th Congress was 9.4 years (or 4.7 two-year House terms), and 10.1 years for senators (or 1.7 six-year Senate terms). The seniority averages are especially important as to how they relate to various efforts to impose “term limits” on lawmakers. Most proposals suggest a six-term limit for House members and a two-term limit for senators or, to put it another way, an overall 12-year limitation on House and Senate members alike.

A recent resignation and an unexpected death have caused a reshuffling of the House’s longevity and seniority lists. Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) was both the oldest and the longest-serving member when he resigned his House seat last December after sexual harassment charges were raised against him by several female staffers.

Conyers’ resignation made 88-year-old Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) the House’s oldest member, but she died unexpectedly on March 16 and 87-year-old Rep. Sam Johnson (R-Tex.) became the House’s oldest member.

Only five others in congressional history served longer than Conyers. When he resigned, the title of longest-serving member was passed to Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), a title he shares with Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.). Both Young and Leahy have been in Congress since January 1975.

Among House members, the youngest is 32-year-old Rep. Elise Stefanek (R-N.Y.) who is in her first term. In the Senate, the youngest member is 40-year-old Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and the oldest is 84-year-old Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.).

At the bottom of the Senate seniority list are Sens. Tina Smith (D-Minn.) and Doug Jones (D-Ala.) who both began serving last January 3. Smith was appointed to replace Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) who resigned in the face of sexual abuse charges; and, Jones won a special election to replace Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) who resigned to become U.S. Attorney General.

At the bottom of the House seniority totem pole is newly elected Rep. Conor Lamb (D-Pa.), the winner of a hotly contested special election that gained nationwide attention on March 13. Lamb is ranked 431st out of 435 owing to four other House seats that have been vacated. Besides the seats left vacant by Conyers’ resignation and Slaughter’s death, special elections have been scheduled to replace Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) and Pat Tiberi (R-Ohio).

According to the CRS report, 12,247 individuals have served in Congress—10,946 in the House and 1,973 in the Senate (including 672 who have served in both chambers) since the 1789 convening of the 1st Congress.

Another 177 have served as non-voting delegates from the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa, Guam, and the Northern Mariana Islands. Also, the Philippine Islands had a resident commissioner serving in the House from the end of the Spanish-American War until 1946 when it became an independent country.

The CRS report examines the current Congress through the prism of other demographic categories such as their gender, race, religion, and their careers prior to their elections.

Among other report highlights:

  • Large majorities of the House and Senate members were lawyers or held other offices before they were elected to Congress. A Congressional Quarterly survey found that a career as a lawyer and/or officeholder was mentioned by 362 House members (83%) and 94 senators (94%).
  • The House has seven radio talk show hosts; seven radio or television broadcasters, managers or owners; eight news reporters; one public television producer; and, one newspaper publisher.
  • The Congress is overwhelmingly Christian. According to the CRS report, 98% of the 435-member House and 100% of the 100-member Senate have a religious affiliation; and, 90.7% say they are Christian. Among Christian lawmakers, 55.9% (241 in the House, 58 in the Senate) are Baptist, Methodist, and other Protestant religions; and, 31.4% (144 in the House, 24 in the Senate) are Catholic. Another 5.6% (22 in the House, 8 in the Senate) are Jewish.
  • A record 110 females are serving in Congress (88 in the House, 22 in the Senate).
  • A record 51 African Americans are in Congress (48 in the House, 3 in the Senate). Also, there are 46 Hispanic/Latinos (41 in the House, 5 in the Senate); and, 18 Asian/Pacific Islanders (15 in the House, 3 in the Senate).
  • Also, 18 House members and 5 senators are naturalized U.S. citizens. They emigrated to the U.S. from Canada, Cuba, Guatemala, Japan, Peru, and India.

Edward Zuckerman