Now that the general election is over, we can officially say that the Philadelphia City Council will be the youngest in decades. In October 2011, the median age of the Council was 61. Currently, it’s 52. This trend toward youthfulness is a step in the right direction. But it didn’t happen organically.
Local millennial representation
In the past year, six former Councilmembers resigned to run for mayor, including Derek Green, Allan Domb, Helen Gym, Maria Quiñones Sánchez, David Oh, and Mayor-elect Cherelle Parker, leaving vacancies for younger leaders to fill. (The Democratic mayoral candidates’ average age: 57; their 2024 replacements on City Council: 48.)
But youthful representation in our legislative bodies shouldn’t be haphazard. We need systems in place to ensure no one group is overrepresented in our legislative bodies. Often, we hear this about racial diversity efforts. But it applies to age, too, because older generations are overrepresented in government. And young people deserve intentional equal representation at all levels of government. One proven way to help make this happen? Term limits.
“Frankly, it’s time for a new generation of leaders. They’re the ones that need to make the decisions that will shape the world they will be living in to make way for the next generation.” — Sen. Mitt Romney
Even Councilmember Brian O’Neill, who’s represented the 10th Council District for over 40 years, supports term limits. He proposes a limit of five terms. That may or may not be the right number, but an acknowledgment that this is an issue from the most seasoned City Councilmember indicates that we need movement on term limits.
And other cities have it. City Councils in New York City, Los Angeles, Houston, Phoenix, San Antonio, San Diego, Dallas, and San Jose all have term limits. Of the 10 largest American cities, only Chicago and Philadelphia don’t.
On the national scale, the obvious elephant in the room is that Joe Biden, our 80-year-old President who has trouble keeping his balance, will seek re-election in 2024. His potential Republican competitor, former President Donald Trump, isn’t spry either. Trump, 77 years old, recently confused which city he was in, called Hamas “hummus,” and told a New York City courtroom that he was still president in 2021. Thankfully, we have presidential term limits, so neither can be President for too long. Congress, however, lacks term limits and looks increasingly like a retirement home, with a median age of 65.3, which is an increase from last year.
U.S. Senator Mitt Romney recently announced that he won’t seek re-election. His reasons were humble and encouraging — reminiscent of the decency the Republican Party used to have.
Romney cited old age, saying, “I have spent my last 25 years in public service of one kind or another. At the end of another term, I’d be in my mid-80s. Frankly, it’s time for a new generation of leaders. They’re the ones that need to make the decisions that will shape the world they will be living in to make way for the next generation.” Indeed, Senator.
It starts with lawmakers having the humility to admit when their time has expired and the courage to legislate term limits.
Now, it’d be nice if someone would convey that to Sen. Chuck Grassley (90), Sen. Mitch McConnell (81), Rep. Hal Roger (85), Rep. Chris Smith (70), and Rep. Steny Hoyer (84) — all have been in office since 1981, excepting McConnell, who’s been there since 1985. Most of them are as old or older than Romney — and are also too old to join any Pennsylvania Court, which forces you into retirement once 75.
Like Romney, many of those lawmakers have done everything there is to do in politics, spanning from presidential runs, terms in local offices, and governorships, to chairpersons of high-powered committees. They benefit more from their 40-year-long tenures than their constituents do. We see the consequences of this every day.
McConnell keeps factory resetting amid speeches, leading to speculation about his health and mental acuity. His story is that of impressive and cut-throat political acumen, but it is also a story of just being there way too long. If you need proof, recall that in 1987, after Senator Ted Kennedy defeated Robert Bork’s Supreme Court nomination, McConnell (with only two years on the job) warned that Democrats would rue the day they denied Bork’s nomination.
Over 30 years later, McConnell has kept his promise, managing to stack the Supreme Court with a majority of conservative justices. In other words, he delivered on a 30-year vendetta. Public office is not the venue for 30-year tiffs (this goes for Democrats, too). But such fastidious pettiness is only possible because there are no term limits, allowing them to stay there sometimes until they die — like the late Senator Dianne Feinstein.
We need more balance
And they stay there for so long because many of them would be unemployed if not for public office. Let’s be real, many of them lack the skills to be employable. Could you, for example, imagine Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee (73), who recently went viral for verbally abusing her staff — calling them “fucking idiots” who “serve no goddamn purpose” — working for someone other than herself after leaving Congress?
This isn’t to suggest that older people lack a place in our institutions. Their wisdom and institutional knowledge are invaluable assets to our democracy. But older generations are overrepresented in government.
Younger, more balanced legislative bodies would benefit everyone. If young people had more political stock, we, for example, wouldn’t have as many Senators fumbling in committee hearings, struggling to understand how social media and technology work. With rising controversies over the use of artificial intelligence (AI), young, technologically literate lawmakers are necessary. Humility coupled with systemic reforms — term limits and ending legislative seniority systems that incentivize lawmakers to stay past their welcome — would create an environment that intentionally incorporates young people into our democracy.
But it starts with lawmakers having the humility to admit when their time has expired and the courage to legislate term limits.
Jemille Q. Duncan is a public policy professional, columnist, and Gates Scholar at Swarthmore College.
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