Should Aging Government Leaders Have to Pass Cognitive Tests to Serve?

Republican Senator Bill Cassidy said finally something that few people dare say: Some of those who manage the American government might be too old to do the job.

At some point, and statistically it’s in the 80s, you begin a more rapid decline,” Cassidy, a gastroenterologist, told Axios on HBO. “So anybody who’s in a position of responsibility who may potentially be on that slope, that is of concern, and I’m saying this as a doctor.”

Wisdom comes with experience. Yet so few of the nation’s leaders seem to have the wisdom to know when it’s time to call it a day.
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American’s top politicians are getting older. As his septuagenarian predecessor Donald Trump, President Joe Biden, 78, has been subject to mental health attacks. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi is still negotiating reconciliation packages at 81, while the Senate’s top Republican Mitch McConnell is still trying to block them at 79.

Cassidy, who is 64, made clear that he wasn’t singling out anyone in particular with his suggestion that elderly members of government undergo regular cognitive tests.

“Would it be reasonable to have, for Supreme Court Justices, members of Congress and leadership positions in the executive branch, an annual sort of evaluation in which they would have to establish, ‘Yes, I’m doing okay?’” Cassidy continued, noting he had heard of Senators who were “senile” at the end of their terms. “I think that’s actually a reasonable plan.”

Some 30 states have age-based drivers’ license renewal requirements, including many that require seniors over 70 to take extra tests or apply in person to keep them. This standard would be applicable to almost 30% of U.S. Senate. Except you don’t have to prove your mental acuity to continue driving the country.

The Founders set minimum age limits for serving in the House, Senate and Presidency, but never specified a maximum—partly because average life expectancy at the time was in the mid-30s. Americans now live longer lives than they did in the past, and government has evolved into a gerontocracy.

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Cassidy is “not wrong,” says Amanda Litman, who usually disagrees with him on policy. Litman is the co-founder of Run for Something. It recruits and trains young Democrats for political office. The advanced age of elected officials “is a huge problem,” she adds. “It’s an open secret and it directly affects the way the government functions.”

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Pelosi and Bernie Sanders are not the only octogenarians. There are also others whose apparent fragility could pose a serious threat to Washington’s power balance. One bad slip on a too-polished floor could make or break a majority, crumple a President’s agenda or upset the balance of power on the Supreme Court.

The tremors caused by the January hospitalization of Senator Patrick Leahy (81), in Vermont sent shockwaves through Democratic caucus. It was impossible for them to afford to lose one single member, and they could not give up their hold on power in a 50-50 Senate. Diane Feinstein, California’s oldest member, is reported to be in cognitive decline. She allegedly forgets her briefings, and then repeats herself. (Feinstein has filed paperwork to keep her campaign committee alive in case she runs for re-election in 2024; her staff said that the paperwork was purely formal, and didn’t indicate anything about her plans to run.)

Senate Republicans also include a number of geriatrics. Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley, 88, plans to stand for reelection in next year’s election. Senator Jim Inhofe from Oklahoma is 86, Senator Richard Shelby is 87.

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The problem also exists at the Supreme Court, where justices with lifetime appointments don’t have to answer to pesky voters as they decide how long to stay in their seats. Many liberals are still furious that Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg stayed on the court into her 80s, despite her status as a cult figure. Instead of stepping down to let President Obama replace her, they remain angry. When she died last year during the final months of President Trump’s term, Ginsburg was replaced by conservative justice Amy Coney Barrett, cementing the court’s conservative majority and ratcheting up calls for liberal justice Stephen Breyer, 83, to retire while a Democrat is President.

This issue goes beyond the increased risk of sudden death or the inability of senior leaders to make important decisions. Keeping the government in the grip of the oldest generations means that the priorities of younger people—who had record turnout in the last two elections—frequently get the short end of the stick. Already, tuition-free public college has been nixed from the Democrats’ reconciliation bill. The climate change provisions may be in danger.

“The problems of young Americans are just a lot different now than they were right when a lot of the folks in Congress were our age,” says Maxwell Alejandro Frost, a 24-year old former March For Our Lives organizer who is running for Congress as a Democrat in Florida’s 10th district. “The constituency of young people are often overlooked.”

Frost, though, says he’s concerned cognitive testing would be a “slippery slope” that could be weaponized or politicized. He favors term limits to ensure Congress has more of a “revolving door.”

I do think there’s an age at which people just become out of touch with things,” he says.

There are many other senators who could be sharp enough to make primetime.


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