Loyola University Chicago School of Law, JD 2025
With the recent death of trailblazing Congresswoman Diane Feinstein, discussion of whether Congress members, and politicians in general, should be allowed to serve long after the retirement age are becoming even more prevalent. This conversation is important as people who hold opposite opinions have valid arguments that must be considered. On one hand, the United States has banned age discrimination in the workplace. On the other hand, keeping people who have declining physical or cognitive health may pose a safety concern for our nation, especially when we are discussing high ranking officials. Ultimately, we are a nation for the people and by the people. Thus, we decide whether we place age limitations on our elected officials or not by going to the polls.
Current events with aging politicians
In recent months, we have seen the impact declining health has had on multiple politicians. In June, President Biden fell during the Air Force Academy graduation; if elected for a second term, he would be 86 years-old, which is over a decade older than when President Regan left office. In recent months House minority leader Mitch McConnell, had two freeze-up moments that have caused concern for not only the journalists asking him questions, but also Americans across the world. More recently, Congresswoman Diane Feinstein has passed away, hours after casting her final vote.
The banning of age discrimination
The banning of age discrimination occurred through the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA) which, “protects certain applicants and employees 40 years of age and older from discrimination on the basis of age in hiring, promotion, discharge, compensation, or terms, conditions or privileges of employment.” This Act is important because there are adults who are well into the retirement age, yet still have strong cognitive abilities which allow them to excel in their jobs. Cognitive abilities and/or health decline usually correlate with age, but that is not always the case. The question then becomes: rather than placing age restrictions, should we be allowed to limit the term of an elected politician’s service if they are declining physically or cognitively? Such a decline in health may limit the ability for the politician to serve their constituents in the best way possible or even threaten national security.
Arguments for limiting the term of politicians
A recent poll has shown a substantial amount of people want to place restrictions on those who become elected officials. One of the reasons being certain politicians, as discussed earlier, may face cognitive or physical decline, yet they do not step down from their position. What is concerning is that the reasons for not stepping down may be political. There may fear of who may succeed current incumbents, so they ignore the concern that they may not be doing their job to the best of their ability. Although much of the debate focuses on age limitations due to cognitive abilities, that is not the only reason for this restriction. Some people argue that having individuals sit in positions in Congress or the Supreme Court for 30, 40, or 50 plus years precludes voter participation in government. We limit the number of people who can directly participate in our democracy, while allowing a small portion to sit comfortably in their positions.
For the People, By the People
Ultimately, the decision lies in the hands of the people. A survey conducted by YouGov/CBS demonstrates that over 75% of Americans want an age limit for elected officials. People are concerned about politicians and their ability to do their job. Given the serious nature of the job, many people want individuals with the energy and capacity to work on such rigorous tasks. They may not want to over-burden someone who is already in a fragile state. Additionally, people are concerned about the ability for individuals to stay in power for decades without chance of removal. However, we are a country for the people and by the people. Thus, it is important, no matter what our position is, to make sure we voice our opinions. This first begins by using one of our many rights: the ability to voice our opinions at the polls by voting.
Hopefully, we balance the age discrimination act and public safety concerns, or fiduciary duties to the public. This can be done in a reasonable and moderate way. For example, we can impose restrictions on when a person could hold a high-ranking publicly elected position not based on age, but rather when their mental and physical capacity declines and does not allow for the most efficient work. This is only fair since some people in their eighties are still sharp minded and critical thinkers and should be able to remain in office. Whereas other individuals may face a circumstance where they no longer are able to carry such duties in their fifties. Therefore, we must find a way to balance all the concerns of the public while still being reasonable and fair to those in office. And by doing so, we will remain a country for the people by the people.