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Congress is older than ever. It hasn't always been this way.

ELISSA NADWORNY, HOST:

At the end of his eighth term representing Iowa in the U.S. Senate, the newly reelected Chuck Grassley will be 95 years old. The speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, is 82. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is 80. In fact, nearly 25% of Congress is over 70 years old. That's the highest it's ever been. For more on this, let's bring in Walt Hickey. He is the senior data editor at Insider and led the data analysis on a project called Red, White and Gray, about the oldest legislature in American history. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

WALT HICKEY: Thank you so much for having me.

NADWORNY: So your project at Insider drove into a lot of numbers and found that this trend really started about 30 years ago. What happened back then? Like, what changed?

HICKEY: You know, it's no surprise that the government is slightly older than the people that it governs. This has always kind of been the case. But what we've really seen is just kind of a major shift since the '90s that has been basically changing how Congress represents America, where even though half of the country is under the age of 38, only about 5% of Congress is.

NADWORNY: Wow. Yeah, so it sounds like the people who are elected are staying in office longer, maybe because of redistricting, maybe because of money in politics. And that's kind of aging Congress.

HICKEY: Yeah. I mean, the incentives to stick around are pretty good. I mean...

NADWORNY: Yeah.

HICKEY: ...Particularly if you look in the Senate and on the Democratic side of the House, they reward seniority with power. Campaign finances had a lot of corrosive effect at times on American politics, the billion-dollar elections that we're currently in now. And, you know, it had an impact where, if you are an older member, you're able to shore up more capital to kind of fend off primary challengers and hold on to your seats in general at a rate that's a little bit better than, you know, younger members.

The other kind of big effect that we've seen is, you know, we just had a redistricting cycle. And oftentimes in redistricting cycles, members are forced into member-on-member primaries. And what we found looking over the past several redistricting cycles is that older members are more likely to survive that. They win about 60% of the time. And so you just kind of have all these structural impacts that have kind of gotten a little bit worse over the past 30 years.

NADWORNY: The Republican Party tends to be more associated with older supporters, but the Democratic Party actually has a lot of older lawmakers currently in office.

HICKEY: Yeah.

NADWORNY: Why is that?

HICKEY: It's a really interesting kind of paradoxical thing that you're highlighting, but it comes down to these structural factors, right? So one thing that's interesting about Republicans versus Democrats in the House of Representatives, for instance, is that Republicans have term limits on committee leaderships and committee chairmanships, whereas Democrats on the other hand, they value seniority when it comes to giving these positions. And so there's a huge incentive in Democratic Party politics to wait around and stick around. You know, this is for a couple different reasons, one of which is, again, you know, the Democratic Party has - it's important to them that they kind of take the minority communities that they represent and give them a chance to attain power. And, you know, so you'll see some of the folks who have benefited the most from this are folks in places like the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. And that's where some of the strongest support for these seniority-based legislation is. Where in the Republican Party, you know, you get your bite at the apple and then you get to move on. And if you don't want to be a backbencher anymore, then you can move on to other things in public life. Whereas in Democratic politics, there's a huge incentive to stay as long in the House of Representatives as you can, because tomorrow you're always going to be more powerful than you were yesterday.

NADWORNY: For this project, you also did some polling that touched on how Americans feel about the aging of their lawmakers. What did you find?

HICKEY: Yes, we worked with Morning Consult, and we ran a survey basically just diving into this issue and really getting at it. And what we found is that the American people have really strong opinions about this. Forty-one percent of respondents said that the political leaders' ages are a problem, a major problem, in fact. And then another 37% said that it was a minor problem. So you're looking at substantial bipartisan majorities in this country who are seeing that the aging of America's government is an issue, right? And we found that this kind of held across parties, and we found that it actually held across age groups. Seventy-five percent of respondents were in favor of a maximum age for members of Congress, which is on par with the number of people who want maximum ages for police officers and pilots. Like, this is something that people really care about.

NADWORNY: That's Walt Hickey. He is a senior data editor at Insider and led the data analysis on a project called Red, White and Gray. Thanks for being with us.

HICKEY: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Erika Ryan
Erika Ryan is a producer for All Things Considered. She joined NPR after spending 4 years at CNN, where she worked for various shows and CNN.com in Atlanta and Washington, D.C. Ryan began her career in journalism as a print reporter covering arts and culture. She's a graduate of the University of South Carolina, and currently lives in Washington, D.C., with her dog, Millie.
Elissa Nadworny reports on all things college for NPR, following big stories like unprecedented enrollment declines, college affordability, the student debt crisis and workforce training. During the 2020-2021 academic year, she traveled to dozens of campuses to document what it was like to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work has won several awards including a 2020 Gracie Award for a story about student parents in college, a 2018 James Beard Award for a story about the Chinese-American population in the Mississippi Delta and a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation.