A few months into this congressional session and it’s apparent that with such a narrow majority, every lawmaker counts and several members have faced injuries or illnesses. This year should serve as a reminder that term limits are needed especially as the nation’s senior legislative body, the U.S. Senate, hangs in the balance over legislative proposals and nominations.
Many congressional lawmakers are septuagenarians and octogenarians (70+ and 80+ years old), and many of them have served in office for decades. This is not so much about age as it is about years – and in many instances decades – in public office. With Senators Mitch McConnell and Diane Feinstein out for several weeks this session, they – as well as other lawmakers – have missed votes and delayed the legislative process. This has made a gridlocked, partisan Congress into an even more problematic institution.
Recently, Feinstein has received media attention as she has been recovering from shingles since February. Several Democrats – members of her own party – have called for her to retire even though she announced in January that she would not seek re-election. Some Democrats also tried to have her replaced on the Senate Judiciary Committee because federal judge confirmations have been delayed by her absence.
Feinstein supporters argue that she is being targeted because she is a female and elder lawmaker. But Republicans have their own senior and ailing leadership as well. McConnell has been in office for so many years that he is now the longest-serving senatorial party leader. He also is recovering from injuries related to a fall last month.
Aside from illness and injuries, so many lawmakers have been in Congress since the 1990s that it should not be surprising that our current Congress is the third oldest in the institution’s history. Few lawmakers face formidable competition from within their own party or opposing political parties. With a nearly 90% re-election advantage, incumbents all utilize their name recognition, party apparatus, and special interest support on their way to re-election.
As an example, our Connecticut congressional delegation has several septuagenarians and octogenarians and some of them have served in Congress for decades. US Rep. Rosa DeLauro has been in office since 1991 and US Rep. John Larson since 1999. Even though US Rep. Joe Courtney has served since 2007 and Senator Richard Blumenthal since 2011, they are also septuagenarians.
As a former congressional aide, I have been wary of and frustrated with long-serving lawmakers. One Illinois representative whom I worked for planned and eventually term-limited himself, which meant for me and other staff that we were unfortunately out of a job for a couple of months until we found positions with other lawmakers. This was in the late 1990s when a number of lawmakers supported term limits and opted not to remain in office for decades.
Many House lawmakers can remain in office in perpetuity in some districts because their legislative maps were designed to safeguard their office and political party. Connecticut’s congressional districts reflect this dynamic, particularly with the Hartford area’s 1st Congressional District, nicknamed “the lobster claw” because the map was drawn to veer around Farmington Valley towns while extending west into Hartland and Winsted.
With safe districts, little competition, and significant campaign donations, it’s no wonder that so many congressional lawmakers become longtime officeholders. Even if some argue that elections serve as term limits, the electoral advantage remains with the incumbent.
But now, with pending legislation and nominations delayed by gridlock in Washington, voters should reconsider this issue and back congressional candidates who support term limits. It’s long overdue and the current congressional session is a blaring reminder that we cannot afford to have the legislative process come to a grinding halt.