If you’ve been anywhere near the media or the water cooler recently, the news of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky) second of two public 404 Errors in which the geriatric politician stopped speaking mid-sentence to stare blankly into space for a prolonged period would have been difficult to miss. Adding to these public displays, senate colleagues report McConnell has been falling frequently, often seems confused in meetings, and has difficulty hearing or understanding people around him.
McConnell’s incidents are not unique among an increasingly antiquated group of elected officials. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Ca), a member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence who is now 90 years old, has had similar health concerns. While recovering from shingles, the senator suffered from encephalitis and Ramsay Hunt syndrome, conditions which come with such side effects as memory loss, changes in personality, seizures or problems with movement, changes in vision or hearing, facial paralysis, and hearing loss according to the Mayo Clinic.
After returning to the senate, Feinstein appeared disoriented and unsure of what to do, at one point being prompted by a staffer to “just say aye” during a vote. There are currently allegations that Feinstein has been the victim of elder abuse from family members.
Within the U.S. Senate, 54% of legislators are already of retirement age, compared to the population at large that sits at 16.8%. The average age in the United States is 38.5, but the senate is 64.13. If those numbers aren’t already terrifying, here is the real horror: 2 senators were born during the Great Depression, 6 during World War Two, and overall, 80% of the entire senate was born before the first moon landing. In an age where we have proven most of our managers don’t know how to rotate a PDF or use video meeting software, personnel who are decades out of date probably shouldn’t be making laws… And the Pentagon agrees.
In September, a report commissioned by the Pentagon from the RAND Corporation's National Security Research Division was released stating a very specific and unambiguous fact.
“The workforce might experience a higher prevalence of dementia than in past generations. Taken together, we believe that an increasing number of cleared personnel - that is, personnel who hold or have held security clearances - have or will have dementia… The risk that an individual becomes a national security threat because of dementia symptoms depends on many factors, such as the nature of the classified information they hold, for how long the unauthorized disclosure of that information could cause damage (including serious or exceptionally grave damage), and whether the individual is targeted by an adversary to obtain that information…”
The report specifies that several factors related to dementia and cognitive deficiencies only increase as the officials age, which in turn increases the threat to national security. Additionally, deciding who is and is not within this threat category is difficult at best.
Solutions to this danger are spelled out in the report under the assumption that current security risks must be managed, as well as developing additional protocols for those individuals who will soon age into the ‘danger zone’, namely veterans. In addition to the normal issues associated with advancing in age, veterans suffer from already having injuries and traumas which speed and complicate cognitive decline.
“Post-9/11 service members are likely to be retiring soon in large numbers, after 20 years of military service, and many are expected to join the federal workforce, bringing a security clearance with them to their new government or security contractor jobs. Because many of them suffered mild TBI and exposure to traumatic experiences, they are at increased risk for development of dementia and potentially earlier onset of dementia… We expect that efforts to hire those with a security clearance, and efforts to support the hiring of veterans, have led to a large number of individuals with past military service who maintain a clearance in their post service employment. Although we are not aware of public data reporting the size of the veteran population with a security clearance in the federal workforce, this population is worth taking note of because many veterans are at higher risk for development of early cognitive impairment, and post–military service careers in intelligence or other security-related agencies are common. In FY 2016, military veterans made up 31 percent of the federal workforce.”
Clearly this is a serious and severe concern, both for the preservation of our nation’s secrets and for the legislative work where their errors can be enshrined in our laws, but addressing the current threat without sealing the leak is merely using a bucket to bail out the ship as it sinks. If we simply resign ourselves to treat the symptoms without combating the disease, we cannot act surprised when the medical bills bankrupt us. Fortunately, this is a disease which can be remedied in three ways.
Age Limits and Medical Exams
Limitations already exist on the age of legislators; 25 for the House of Representatives, 30 for the Senate, and 35 for the Office of the President. These restrictions were put in place to ensure that only persons of sufficient age, and therefore experience and knowledge would oversee steering the ship. There is no logical reason to assume that the reverse should not also be true, that once someone has reached a certain age, they are no longer in touch with the realities faced by the average American… And as a reminder, the average in this example is 38 years old.
Other forms of government service require medical exams to determine eligibility, such as the military and federal law enforcement agencies, but there is currently no compulsory requirement to demonstrate competency for legislators or Supreme Court Justices. This essentially gives us a system where those enforcing the laws of the country are required to be mentally and physically sound, while those writing the laws may not even be aware of where they are or what the law contains. There are a lot of dangers to democracy, but that one must sit close to the top. Annual cognitive examinations should be required regardless of age, so no lawmaker fades away behind a voting button.
Term Limits for All Elected Positions: Two Birds with One Stone
Conceptually, the easiest way to limit the damage that can be caused by ancient creatures decaying in our public halls for decades is to add a limit to the amount of time they can serve to the constitution, both how many times they can be elected and how many years they can serve. This limit would be tailored to each body it restricted and would include all three branches of government and would by law have to be codified in a constitutional amendment.
Aside from the obvious benefit, which is the thesis of this article, there are extra perks for the American taxpayer. Without endless reelections to consider, legislators can spend more time focused on performing the duties for which they were hired. Campaigns would be reined in, saving both millions of dollars and millions of brain cells for the rest of us. Lastly, salary, retirement and benefit packages would be drastically reduced, saving the taxpayer millions of dollars per year. (My personal belief is that legislator salaries should be tied to the median income for the state or district that elected them, but that’s a different article.)
Term limits can also directly address the security concern of having someone suffering with Alzheimer’s who is in possession of nuclear secrets. Fourteen current or former senators and congressmen, (and some were both) are both alive today and served between 36 and almost 50 years each. That’s nine presidential terms. 65% of all Super Bowls. With decades of classified information in their heads, any cognitive decline combined with external influence either foreign or domestic, can have a devastating impact. On the other hand, if legislators were term limited, the amount of classified data any one person could have would be limited to specific time periods. If the choice is losing five years of classified data or fifty… Well, that’s not a serious choice.
While the exact time and age limitations are the subject of a lot of debate among people of different backgrounds and political affiliations, the majority of Americans agree they are necessary. The only obstacles to constitutional ratification that truly stand in the way are the voters agreeing on the terms… and the people who the terms would limit standing in the way wringing their hands. Getting a politician in this country to do the right thing may be like trying to cook a chicken by slapping it… But it can be done. If those in power refuse to secure our nation’s secrets, if they insist on draining the coffers so they can decompose on the national stage, then it’s time to remove them from that stage. What you say at the ballot box means far more than what you comment on the internet, so as a country it is time to put our vote where our interests lie.