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All Men Must Die, But They Don't Have to Die in Office
Waiting for death to replace leaders is not much of a plan
The House on Tuesday passed two bills sponsored by the late Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), who died last month after serving 49 years in the House.
The bills — dubbed the Alaska Salmon Research Task Force Act and the Don Young Alaska Native Health Care Land Transfers Act — both passed by voice vote. They were introduced by the congressman in December and January, respectively.
Young, who was known as the dean of the House for his status as the longest-serving member of Congress, died at the age of 88 on March 18 while traveling home to Alaska.
Now, 88 years is actually pretty good as an age for a man to reach, so good for you, Don.
That said — 49 years in the House of Representatives? Alaska, could you not switch it up once in a while?
He was in the House longer than I’ve been alive. He was first elected in 1973, so started serving in the House for Alaska’s single seat in the House of Reps in 1973, and had been until he died. He actually lost the regular election in 1972 to a dead man. So then they held a special election and he won that one in 1973.
In any case, Alaska kept returning Young with ever-increasing electoral margins it seems, so it’s on them that they basically wanted to keep him until he died.
But it doesn’t have to be this way.
Prior posts on the same topic
So, I’ve looked at this issue before:
Feb 2021: On The Congressional Body of Old Folks and Deaths in Office — just on the Senate
Mar 2021: Likelihood of Senate Control Changing Due to Death
Feb 2022: Political mortality: on old people in the Senate and death probabilities
All these Senate-related posts really had to do with Supreme Court nominations, but we’ve got the most recent one behind us and now I’m looking to this November, and what fools are running for re-election and who may be in the next Congress.
Current Congressional demographics
This post at Fiscal Note, from February 2021 has two tables of House and Senate members, and Here is a list of everybody who has died in office in the 2020s. Of course, there may be changes due to reasons other than death, but I am not going to trace them right now.
Here is a histogram of Congressional ages right now, by party (I’m lumping “independents” with Democrats, because they caucus with them)
In the House, the Republicans currently skew a little younger than the Democrats, with an average age of 57 years for Republican representatives and 60 years for Democratic reps.
What’s interesting about the Senate age distribution is that though we have some difference in the lumpiness, when I look at the average age of the senators by party, they’re basically the same: 64 years old (and some change). On the younger end of the Boomers.
Average age by state
Now, I do have minimum and maximum age by states, but just to keep this short, let me do an average age distribution. Keeping in mind that this ranges from California, with 53 representatives in this data set, down to the small states with only one rep each. I’m using the same color code for both House and Senate, so you can see a pattern….
House average age map:
For the Senate, each state has two senators, so that’s evenly matched:
If you’re reading this post via my substack, you can download the spreadsheet and see exactly how old these people are, because some of them are very old. This will be relevant in just a moment.
Two-year and six-year survival curves
As readers of Mortality with Meep know (and anybody paying attention these last two years), mortality probabilities have not really been stable recently.
To ignore all the COVID disruptions, with a brief nod to the one Congressman who died of COVID (that we know of), I am using the Social Security 2019 Life Tables for the following graphs.
I am graphing both 2-year survival probabilities (for House seats) and 6-year survival probabilities (for Senate seats) on this graph:
To interpret a specific point I highlighted: using this mortality table, a man age 84, newly elected to a Senate seat, has about a 50-50 chance of making it to the end of his term.
(By the way, this gives you an idea of the distinction between life expectancies from birth and survival probabilities given you’re currently a certain age.)
For more representatives, even for the oldest ones, the chances of surviving just 2 years is pretty good.
However, if you’ve got 435 representatives (and we do), all one needs is a death probabilities of 1 out of 400 in 2 years — much less than 1% — to be expecting at least one person dies in the House. Indeed, in my updating from the February 2021 calculation, I had to remove 4 representatives due to death. Just 1% of the House.
Even with the House generally being younger, there are more people to die, so the probability of somebody dying is pretty good.
On the Senate side, 301 senators have died while in office so far, and given how old the Senate has gotten…. yeah, I’m expecting more.
Succession planning: do any politicians or political parties do it?
Obviously, many of the congresspeople that I ran the stats on are not running for re-election in 2022.
Some senators’ seats aren’t even up for election (that’s only every 6 years). One Democrats and five Republicans are not running for the senate seats they are currently in.
Some incumbents are not seeking re-election in the House: 30 Democrats and 18 Republicans (some are running for other offices, mind you).
All that said, this is something to keep in mind for election time. We have a few people running for election this fall where people are being a little forgetful of Memento Mori.
Okay, I will be specific: Chuck Grassley, what the hell. Pelosi, at least, has only a 2-year term she needs to survive. Even so. Pelosi, why do you have no real successor, either? Y’all suck.
Yes, I know, there’s blah blah blah, so-and-so dies, a governor picks successor or there will be a special election, whatever the process is.
But seriously, the incentives suck if you have people like Grassley and Pelosi who have nobody lined up after them. Even monarchs tried to get their princes and Dukes (who were royal family members) lined up and ready, and sometimes even ceded real power to them. That these people in a republican (that’s little “r”) democracy can’t figure out succession planning does not reflect well on them.
Those are just two people, of course, and if we look at the entire age distribution, it’s not so bad. The House age distribution actually looks reasonable, considering. It’s just that you get somebody like Pelosi gumming up the works and other people are unable to dislodge her…. to be sure, time will take care of that problem eventually, but it may be too late to help younger Democrats.
The Senate is a stickier problem for parties, having fewer seats to work with, and some very bad older examples of people hanging on until way too old, like Strom Thurmond and Robert Byrd. Grassley does still seem to be sharp enough (unlike Thurmond and Byrd), though his equally old counterpart on the Democratic side is getting roughed up in the press currently… not sure why, given Diane Fienstein’s seat is not up for re-election until 2024. Hmm.
People have mainly been talking about mental acuity for older candidates, which is relevant. In many of the legislative cases, it is true that it’s the legislators’ staff (or various lobbyists) who are drafting the legislation that they will vote on, so they need not be sharper than just being able to vote yes or no appropriately. Senility issues are not my specialty. (Alzheimers death rates are a specialty, though.)
My issue is that, whether or not senility hits, there is a finite limit to lifetime. Even if the staff does most/all of the meaningful work, there will come an end to the official, eventually, at which point, the staff may or may not get hired by the next person to take the office.
As with Don Young’s first Congressional election, the voters may vote for someone who is actually dead (and they know it!)
The voters are pretty clear when they vote for an 88-year-old man for the Senate, they know they may be voting for somebody who has a pretty high chance of not making it to the end of that term. They’re not bamboozled. People know this.
So, I’m not really advocating for age limits for office, and definitely not for term limits (at least, not without a constitutional amendment). The voters aren’t stupid. They can see old people in front of them. They know that people die.
However, from a political party standpoint, I think the organizations need to do better with regards to leadership, and develop younger leaders and learn to figure out how to get the senior leaders to go off and be “emeritus” or do something else and allow continuity to happen.
Death comes for us all, but having death getting rid of out-of-touch leadership is really not much of a plan.