Does Washington Have Senioritis?

Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Julia Ioffe
November 30, 2021

Shortly before pardoning the Thanksgiving turkeys at the White House, President Joe Biden temporarily transferred the power of his office to Vice President Kamala Harris while he underwent a routine colonoscopy. It was part of his annual physical, during which Biden was found to have a small, benign polyp, some acid reflux, and arthritis. These were utterly unremarkable medical findings for a 78-year-old man, except that this particular senior citizen happens to be the oldest man ever elected to the presidency, one whose age and supposed senility are often speculated about and used as a cudgel by his political enemies and regularly mocked by late-night hosts. 

The exam had the bad fortune to coincide with a poll, released just two days prior, that showed that, despite the evidence, 50 percent of Americans think Biden is not in good health, and 48 percent feel that the Commander in Chief is not mentally fit. It seemed to be why Biden’s physician made a point of declaring the president “vigorous” and “healthy” on the eve of his 79th birthday. It also made one understand why Donald Trump had been quietly spirited away from the White House for his own colonoscopies, popping up at Walter Reed Hospital without ever explaining why he was there or transferring presidential authority to Mike Pence

According to many of Biden’s Republican opponents, the colonoscopy was just more proof—alongside his falling asleep at the COP26 summit and mispronouncing Kyrsten Sinema’s name—that the president is so old as to be barely present. In this conspiracy theory, an incapacitated Biden is little more than a Trojan horse for the radical left, which Harris’s brief tenure at the helm seemed to confirm. It’s a strange line of attack given that, before Biden was sworn into office, Trump had been the oldest president to date. In fact, Trump is just three-and-a-half years younger than Biden, a blink in time when you’ve been on earth for that many decades. And, of course, Democrats who defend Biden forget that they leveled the same attacks at Trump when he was in office. There was the time he plodded down a ramp at a campaign rally or used both hands to raise a glass of water to his lips. There were the Adderall rumors. There was “person, woman, man, camera, TV.” Each time, Trump’s opponents lost their minds with glee—much as Biden’s opponents do now.

Personally, I find both men to be in decent shape given their advanced ages. They are both far more active in their 70s than I was when I was half that age, but it’s a job that attracts people who are high-energy and extroverted to a nearly sociopathic level. Sure, they’ve both lost a step or two if you compare them to their younger selves, but who hasn’t? And who hasn’t fallen asleep during a boring conference while having a far less exhausting job than the American presidency? 

From everything I’ve heard, Biden was very actively involved in negotiations with the Hill over the infrastructure and Build Back Better bills. And he was very much on his toes for a recent meeting with Ukrainian president Volodymr Zelensky. “To a fault he’s exactly the same person he was 30 years ago,” one Democratic aide told me. “The annoying things are still annoying. He’s going to use the same dumb three lines in a speech and not use any of the stuff you put in his speeches. But that’s not old man stubbornness, that’s Joe Biden stubbornness.” Said another Democratic insider, “I knew Biden 30 years ago, and he was mispronouncing shit even then.” 

Biden can get away with a few slip-ups. The presidency, after all, is an executive role with thousands of highly-qualified support staff. But the question of age is bigger than the person sitting behind the Resolute Desk, and the focus on Biden’s age avoids the broader issue, which is that the U.S. capital is ruled almost entirely by the silver-haired. “Washington is run by really old people and really young people,” one Democratic operative told me. “The people in the middle don’t really run the city.” 

This is not a knock against old people. It is a simple statement of fact: Washington, especially Capitol Hill, has become a gerontocracy. In this most recent Congress, the average age of a member of the House of Representatives is over 58, and the average senator is just over 64. (The average age for the American population is 38.) The averages for our elected representatives and senators have both been ticking upwards, but, like most averages, they don’t reflect the full scope of the issue. The president pro tempore of the Senate, Patrick Leahy of Vermont, is 81 and just announced that he will retire rather than run for another term in 2022. But as recently as this spring, he was leaning toward running for reelection, which would have meant that he could have stayed in his seat until he was almost 89. Chuck Grassley of Iowa is 88 and has said he is running for another term in 2022. It’s a race he is sure to win, which would make him 95 by the end of that term. Grassley is not even the oldest person in the Senate. That title belongs to Californian Dianne Feinstein, who is four months older and, unless she dies in the seat, will be in the Senate until she’s 91. The freshmen are senators like Mark Kelly, who retired from the Navy and NASA nearly a decade before being elected to the Senate from Arizona in 2020 at the ripe age of 56. “He’s one of the young guys,” a Democratic Senate aide told me. “People in their 50s are the young bucks around here.” 

Why are there more older folks in the elected branch of the federal government? One longtime G.O.P. aide had the following explanation: “The olds vote, the youngs don’t.” True enough, though it doesn’t account for the meteoric rise of 80-year-old Bernie Sanders on the wings of the superyoung. They have embraced the senator perhaps because of his image as a disgruntled and bemittened old man who has outlived every fuck he had left to give. But he is also the exception that proves the rule, which is that, in the words of one veteran political reporter, “In Washington, the fallback has been experience as opposed to vision.” 

There are other, more subtle reasons that the Hill has become the kingdom of the old. In the lower chamber, where terms are so short that a member never stops running for reelection, the environment has become especially toxic and the churn has accelerated. There are lots of lucrative opportunities to draw members away from what is easily one of the worst jobs in Washington. “A lot of these guys are trying to figure out when to jump off the bus and add a zero to their income,” said the reporter. 

Older members, by contrast, have some of the best jobs in Washington. Because they have stuck around long to land leadership positions or committee assignments, they have chauffeurs and large staffs; they are wined and dined by donors and lobbyists; they hold immense power both in the nation’s capital and back home. Once you have a job like that, it’s very hard to give it up. For anyone interested in a political career, reaching its apogee is an endorphin rush like no other. “What happens around here, it’s pretty seductive,” then-Senator Bob Corker told the Washington Post’s Paul Kane in 2017, shortly after announcing his retirement. “The longer you’re here, the more influence that you have. So it causes you to want to stay and stay and stay.”

This has become especially exaggerated in the upper chamber, as Corker suggested, because seniority determines everything, from choice committee chairmanships to which “hideaway” a senator receives. (Hideaways are the secret chambers in the Capitol building given to each senator and members of the House leadership, in addition to their actual congressional offices.) Senators each have a number, 1 through 100, which is determined by how long they’ve been in the Senate, with ties broken by other factors. For instance, Senators Chris Coons and Joe Manchin were both elected in special elections in 2010 and sworn in November, rather than the standard January inauguration. This makes them both more senior and higher ranking than all the other senators first elected in 2010. But Manchin, who had been a state governor, was ranked one number higher than Coons, who had merely been a county executive. This means that Manchin will always be one slot above Coons. And the more senior a senator, the better their perks, such as a “hideaway” with chandeliers and a view, rather than, say, a windowless room in the basement of the Capitol with a couple plastic chairs. As members advance up the leaderboard, the incentive to retire gradually disappears.

The seniority system naturally discourages more junior members of the Senate and hollows out the middle. Patience, after all, can feel unnatural for someone smart and ambitious enough to have been elected to the nation’s top legislative body in the first place—especially when an intimate knowledge of the legislative process is far more lucrative in the technology, legal, and financial sectors. They can afford to turn a federal employee into a seven-figure earner with the stroke of a pen. 

This is especially problematic on the Democratic side of the aisle. Republicans have six-year term limits for chairmanships, but one senior Democratic senator can accumulate a half-dozen committee and subcommittee chairmanships, each of which come with their own funding, staff, and power to drive policy. (Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin was notorious for acquisitiveness, until a recent rule change forced him to release his grip on a couple assignments.) “There are some people in our caucus who are frustrated that you have to stick around forever till people either retire or die,” one Democratic Senate staffer told me. “People under the seniority system accumulate committee and subcommittee chairmanships, accumulating extra resources, extra money, extra staff, boxing everybody out. If you don’t have that extra staff or resources, it’s hard to get into aggressive oversight or into the details of legislation. The idea that you have to sit around for 20 years and vote on shit other people hand you and wait and try to get reelected, it’s not that attractive to people who are interested in policy and want to get shit done.”

As one Democratic operative who spent years working in the Senate put it, “seniority sucks—unless you’re senior.” And the more senior that members become, the less likely they are to retire, accumulating more power while growing old and older in their seats, until it is painfully apparent to everyone around them that they are well past their prime. “They all serve one term too many.” 

There are some exceptions to the Washington gerontocracy. The State Department, for example, has an up-or-out policy, and the foreign service has a mandatory retirement age of 65. By federal law, the military also pushes people below the rank of general to retire by a relatively young age. Much of the federal workforce is middle-aged because older employees naturally opt out when they can begin to collect their handsome pension benefits. And while the Supreme Court once felt like a place of venerable elders, the average age of the justices at the time of their appointments has been trending steadily downward as modern presidents have sought to maximize the lifetime tenure of their nominees. 

On Capitol Hill, however, age is a badge that members wear with pride. When Chuck Grassley announced that he was running for another six-year Senate term at the age of 88, a good decade past the average life expectancy for an American male, his team tweeted out the announcement. “It’s 4 a.m. in Iowa so I’m running,” it said in Grassley’s voice. “I do that 6 days a week.” The message was accompanied by a gif of an alarm clock flipping to 4:00 am, then cutting to the hunched silhouette of a man, presumably Grassley, gingerly trotting through the sunrise. 

Grassley has made a fetish of his running, using it to deflect any questions about his age. “If I can run three miles four times a week, I’ll be running for reelection,” he told the Post in 2017. “I ran just two miles this morning, but don’t read too much into that. Because it’s the same day I packed my suitcase to go home, and I needed a little extra time.” He included his jogging in his reelection ad, which also featured him doing push-ups. Grassley relishes these feats of fitness, preferably in public, like when he challenged Senator Tom Cotton, a man half his age, to a push-up contest on stage at an Iowa fundraiser. 

Grassley isn’t the only Senate octogenarian who likes to flaunt his surprising physical prowess. Leahy has made it known that he goes scuba diving every year on his birthday, swimming down to where the distance marker coincides with his new age, then down under the 90-foot mark, where he pauses to do a somersault before returning to the surface. Biden made a point of jogging everywhere, using a Peloton, and being seen along the shores of Rehoboth on a bike, blowing by a Fox News correspondent. Joe Manchin, a former college football player, is a runner, as is Delaware Senator Tom Carper, 74—and they both make sure we know about it. 

These are the fun little factoids that one hears batted around on the Hill, by reporters who want to prove the depth of their knowledge and by politicians who want to show just how vigorously they are besting death. It’s a bit different for the women. At 68, West Virginia Senator Shelley Moore Capito is “probably more physically fit than all those guys, but she can’t run with her shirt off,” said one former Hill staffer. “It’s somewhat sexist that the women have to prove it in a different way.” Though House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s staffers love to brag that the 81-year-old doesn’t need sleep and that she “runs on chocolates and the blood of Donald Trump.”

All that physical bravado is just deflection, of course—sweaty smoke and mirrors meant to disguise the unmistakable senescence of our elected representatives. Grassley, for example, deftly hides the effects of his age. When he was the chair of the Finance Committee, the committee only met early in the mornings, because everyone in the Senate knows that he is at his best in the mornings and fades by the afternoon. “The challenge is that for every Grassley, there’s a [Strom] Thurmond,” said the Republican insider, referring to the late South Carolina senator who didn’t leave office until after his 100th birthday, despite his rapid deterioration in the public eye. “He became very hard of hearing and, unwilling to use a hearing aid, sometimes had trouble following debates,” the New York Times noted in its Thurmond obituary. “He collapsed on the Senate floor in October 2001, and moved into Walter Reed Army Medical Center in November. In those last years, he had to be helped on and off the Senate floor by aides, who also told him, in voices audible in the Senate gallery, how to vote.” As the Democratic aide put it to me, “Strom Thurmond basically molted in public.”

Thurmond was hardly the only lawmaker whose deterioration was an open secret. Democratic West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd, who died while still in the Senate at 92, was frequently hospitalized and had to be moved around the Capitol in a wheelchair. He fell asleep in the middle of media interviews. “He was practically lying in state for the last year that he was there,” said the political reporter. Delaware’s Carper won his race because the incumbent, 79-year-old Senator William Roth (of Roth IRA fame) kept collapsing on the campaign trail. 

Before resigning from the Senate in 2018 at the age of 80, Thad Cochran, a Republican from Mississippi, was seen wandering the halls and riding the elevators without pushing any buttons. It was well known that the man frequently didn’t know where he was, but his allies encouraged him to run for reelection because he was the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, one of the most powerful committees on the Hill. Eventually, his health grew so fragile that he was moved into a hotel close to the Capitol so he could be shuttled to and from votes, where staffers would tell him how to vote. Despite the precautions, he occasionally voted the wrong way or called the tally wrong. “He didn’t have any idea what was going on,” recalled the former Hill staffer. “Everyone knew he wasn’t running the Appropriations Committee for five years, but we let him do it. He didn’t want to retire. His staff director was the most powerful person in D.C. during those years. He was the one making the decisions. Everyone knew what was going on. This wasn’t a one-time deal, it happened for multiple years in a row. [Mitch] McConnell would see the [appropriations] bill and he would bless it.” 

This code of omerta has fueled a remarkable demographic divide. As senators and congresspeople decline, their staffers pick up more and more of the slack, often functioning as the de facto representative, which is not exactly what the Constitution had intended. Not only are these staffers unelected, they are also getting younger and younger as their bosses get older and older. In part, this is because of salary cuts introduced by former Speaker of the House John Boehner and the increasing cost of living in Washington. “If you make $150,000 a year, you are very senior and well compensated for the Hill,” noted the Senate Democratic staffer. 

For everyone else, the pay is hardly commensurate with the grueling hours, toxic work environment, and total absence of work-life balance. “People plan weddings and when they have kids based on when they have recess,” said the former Hill staffer. Others decamp to the better-compensated pastures of K Street or the private sector, leaving key support functions to babyfaced staff. “You often have a 27-year-old Legislative Assistant helping draft legislation and they probably don’t know more than what they learned in high school and college.” 

These ambitious staffers are also part of the reason that seniors on the Hill take too long to retire. “You have this infrastructure built around long-serving politicians,” explained one Republican leadership staffer. “It happens in both parties. When you leave and become a lobbyist, and your value is that you worked for a powerful politician who’s still there—and if they go away, your value is decimated. If a powerful politician loses a couple steps, what are the people around them going to say? Their incentives are to say, no, keep going. Everyone’s incentives are aligned to have them stay as long as they can.” Another former senior Hill staffer put it more bluntly. “No staff is going to say to their member, it’s time to go,” this source explained. “That’s not our place, and it’s not in our interest. I’m out of a job and my value as a lobbyist has just gone in the toilet because no one cares about members who aren’t there anymore.”

There are also far less cynical motivations for staying too long on the Hill, ones that are selfish for far more tragic reasons. Some members have become so fully fused with their job, that it becomes their life source. People who know House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, 82, say “Steny’s wife died 20-30 years ago, so he is married to his job,” remarked a Democratic source. (Hoyer’s wife died in 1997.) “I’m sure retiring would be very sad for him.” (“Leader Hoyer is proud to continue serving his constituents and the American people and to be a proven and effective leader in getting things done, particularly during times of crisis, including throughout the COVID-19 pandemic,” said a spokesperson in Hoyer’s office.) The Hill senior everyone is talking about these days, however, is Dianne Feinstein.  Over the last few years, the trailblazing senator has been steadily deteriorating. And though people who know her say that she still has more good days than bad, more than once, her staff has had to remind her that she was in a hearing—and what the hearing was about. According to reporting by Jane Mayer, Feinstein, once a perfectionist and stickler for detail, now forgets that her staffers have already briefed her on a subject, and becomes upset when they point this out. She becomes frustrated when she suddenly finds legislation incomprehensible, calling it “just words [that] make no sense.” When asked by reporters about positions she’s taken, like on filibuster reform, she is at times bewildered and unintentionally contradicts herself. 

Until recently, most of this has happened out of public sight. But last fall, despite Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer trying to put guardrails in place, it all spun into full view. During a televised hearing of the powerful Judiciary Committee, of which she was the ranking Democrat, Feinstein asked then-Twitter C.E.O. Jack Dorsey the same question twice in a row, with the same exact intonation, as if it was the first time she had asked it. Then, after Republicans rammed through the last-minute Supreme Court nomination of Amy Coney Barrett and Democrats decried the process as illegitimate, Feinstein congratulated then-Judiciary Chair Lindsey Graham on a job well done. Democrats, especially those further to the left of her, were furious.

After the Coney Barrett debacle, Schumer pushed a very upset Feinstein out of the Judiciary role, a delicate and sensitive task that most congressional leaders try to avoid. (According to Mayer, Schumer had to have the conversation with Feinstein twice because she forgot the first time.) Still, no one pushed Feinstein to retire. Unspoken Hill decorum dictates that whether a member stays or goes is between them and their constituents. “People outside of politics are sometimes surprised by the fact that no one is telling them the thing that they think someone must be saying to them,” said the Democratic Senate staffer. “In a lot of instances, nobody is having that conversation with them.” 

Despite being sidelined from the leadership of two committees she loves, she does not seem like she wants to resign. Earlier this spring, there was talk in Washington that Biden would appoint Feinstein’s husband, a wealthy financier, to an ambassadorship, providing Feinstein a graceful exit. But it never materialized, in part, people on the Hill say, because Feinstein did not want to leave her seat. (A spokesman for Feinstein denied this.) “She has no life outside the Senate,” said a Democratic aide. “This is her life.” 

Still, there are obvious benefits of governing with a few decades of living at your back. The Senate, for example, is a tangle of hairy old rules, and the longer you’ve been around, the more familiar you are with how to use them in your favor. Orrin Hatch, the longest-serving Republican senator, knew enough history and procedural jiu jitsu to keep the Supreme Court seat vacated by Antonin Scalia open until a Republican president could fill it. Pelosi remains so effective at 81 years of age that even Republicans quietly admit she is at the top of her game. “She is functioning at her peak,” one Republican insider told me. “You can’t argue against her effectiveness.” She’s had her own senior moments, such as when she asked a much younger aide to show her a tweet on their iPhone, only to poke at the screen in frustration. But when it matters, she is on. She kept Republicans from gutting the Affordable Care Act and has managed to keep her conference unified on crucial issues. 

The same is true for the two other members of the House Democratic leadership trinity: Hoyer, the House majority leader, and 81-year-old Jim Clyburn, the majority whip. Clyburn effectively made Biden president, but he’s still good at the in-the-weeds work of the House, counting votes better than anyone in that chamber. For all the griping about Washington’s gerontocracy, the political observer noted, “You’re seeing three octogenarians who are performing at the apex of their abilities.” Nor does anyone bring up the age of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who, at 79, continues to be Democrats’ waking nightmare. When his hands appeared covered in deep plum-colored bruises last fall, no one said McConnell was too old for the job. If anything, the chatter about his health was Democratic wishful thinking, knowing that their greatest villain likely will only stop annihilating their agenda when he’s six feet under.

And yet, the longer these elders hang around, the more they risk coloring their legacies with accumulating senior moments. For all of Hatch’s prowess in confirming two conservative Supreme Court justices and ushering through Trump’s tax cuts, he will also be remembered for removing a pair of invisible glasses from his face during a televised hearing. Shortly afterward, the then-84-year-old Hatch asked Mark Zuckerberg how he makes money if Facebook is free. That remark, later mirrored by other elderly senators, clearly highlighted one of the major liabilities of the seniority system. How can we entrust lawmakers with the responsibility of regulating new technologies and platforms that many of them admit they find bewildering? As the Democratic aide put it to me, “The people who get the most important jobs are maybe the least capable of performing them.”