A Grain Of Saul: If We Want To Fix Congress, We Could Start By Making It Younger

Congress has historically low approval ratings and historically high age. What gives?

A Grain of Saul is a weekly column that digs into some of the biggest issues we face as a nation and as an international community in search of reliable data, realistic solutions, and — most importantly — hope.  

If we want to fix Congress, we should start by electing some younger lawmakers. 

The current United States Congress, with a 19 percent approval rating, is the oldest in the nation's history. The average age of all members of the 115th United States House of Representatives is 57.8 years old, and the average age of the Senate is 61.8. At times, the absence of younger perspectives has proven to be a liability for the legislative body.

Earlier this year, during the public testimony of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, the disproportionately elderly membership of Congress was on display in ways few had seen before. According to Vox, the median age of the chairs and ranking members on the Senate committee who conducted the hearing was nearly 80 years old. Throughout the testimony — one of the most important hearings Congress has held in the last decade — members seemed entirely unaware of what Facebook was, how it worked, or who was using it. They didn't just ask questions that made them appear unprepared, they asked questions that made them sound like every millennials' frustratingly out-of-touch grandparent.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, 84, apparently unaware of online advertisements, asked, "If [a version of Facebook will always be free], how do you sustain a business model in which users don't pay for your service?" Roy Blunt, 68, boasted that he was the first lawmaker to print his "Facebook address" on his business card, adding that his son was a fan of Instagram, the photo-sharing company bought by Facebook. Sen. Lindsey Graham, 63, asked Zuckerberg if Twitter was "the same as what you do?"

Seeing as how members of Congress struggle to grasp something as basic as Facebook, it's far more understandable how a group of Russian hackers penetrated the Democratic National Committee with a basic email phishing scam most any internet-savvy American could spot from 100 yards away. 

It's not that having older members of Congress is a bad thing. On the contrary, having a more "seasoned" or experienced group of legislators running the country is pertinent. The idea that the elderly should rule over a group of people has roots in almost every ancient political culture, and for good reason: older people are typically wise from experience and humbled by their own mistakes. What's concerning in the case of Congress, though, is just how many members of Congress are, by definition, elderly, and just how few are young.

It has become clear that we can't trust the current lawmakers to address some major issues that will require technological solutions: coming automation, a decaying health care system, rising climate change, a student loan debt crisis, and the spread of fake news on the Internet.

Fixing these issues won't just require experienced lawmakers, it will require youthful ones, too. The country needs more legislators who grew up in the Internet age, and who understand modern technology in the same way most young Americans do now. We need both lawmakers with the experience to draft comprehensive legislation, and the lawmakers who are peers of the innovators who will shape the future.

 Everett Collection I Shutterstock
 Everett Collection I Shutterstock

The issues with the age discrepancy go beyond not understanding how a social media network, such as Facebook, functions or leveraging technology to solve an issue such as automation; it cuts to the core of what the priorities of elderly people are vs. what the priorities of a much younger citizenry are.  

Elderly lawmakers will focus on elderly issues: Medicare and Social Security, while both crucial issues for the country, seem to get a bit more attention from Congress than, say, student debt. As Evan Horowitz pointed out in the Boston Globe, there's also the far more menacing reality that some members of Congress are of an age where they are more likely to suffer cognitive impairment.

Despite the elderly's hold on Congress, by 2019 millennials will constitute the largest potential voting block in America. In 2015, the median age in the United States was just above 37 years old. Which brings up another point: a younger Congress would mean a more representative one, too. Congress is predominantly old, White and male. But the country is not. A wave of young leaders could be an opportunity to also bring in a wave of young women, latinos, African Americans, and members of the LGBT community, who are all far more represented in the general population than they are in the legislative one.

The good news is the 2018 primaries are bringing in a lot of options on both sides of the aisle. Politico reported that "younger candidates are flooding Democratic primaries." Townhall has written about the rising tide of young, conservative commentators. And The Hill says 2018 is "the year of young people" in politics. 

If younger Americans show up to the polls in November, there's a good chance they'll vote for a younger legislature. We'd all be wise to welcome it.

You can follow Isaac Saul on Twitter @Ike_Saul

Cover image via Scott Heins/Getty Images. 

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