Viewpoint: Washington Is a Gerontocracy

A 20-something can be the CEO of a billion-dollar company but can't run for the Senate. That doesn't make sense

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Mel Evans / AP, Bryan Bedder / Getty Images for The Webby Awards

Senator Frank Lautenberg, left, who died in office at age 89, and David Karp, the 25-year-old founder of Tumblr

Last month, 26-year-old high school dropout David Karp became the latest 20-something tech billionaire with Yahoo’s $1.1 billion acquisition of Tumblr, the microblogging site Karp founded out of his mother’s New York City apartment.

Karp joins a long line of young American innovators who disrupted industries and changed the way that things had always been done. Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Peter Thiel, Warren Buffett — all of them made their mark on the world before their 30th birthdays. Andrew Ross Sorkin pays homage to this youthful entrepreneurialism in this week’s T magazine, noting that “the number of people in their mid-20s disrupting entire industries, taking on jobs usually reserved for people twice their age and doing it in the glare of millions of social media ‘followers’ seems to be growing almost exponentially.”

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But if any of these wunderkinder want to direct their powerful young minds toward governing the country, they will have to wait a few years. While nearly every other market appreciates, and even reveres, the contributions of young talent, the U.S. Constitution puts strict age requirements on running for elected federal office: candidates must be 25 years old to run for the House of Representatives, 30 for the Senate and 35 for the presidency.

The result is that Capitol Hill remains at least a generation behind the rest of the country. In the 113th Congress, elected in 2012, the average age in the House is 57, and the average age in the Senate is 62. That’s only marginally younger than the 111th Congress, the oldest ever elected in the history of the U.S.: the average age in the House was 57, and the average age in the Senate was 63. New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg, who died June 3 at 89, was the 298th Senator to die in office. Of the 22 Senators who have died in office since 1970, 16 were over 70.

The age of the Senate has been a frequent source of mockery. After the 2012 fiscal-cliff debate, U.S. Representative Steve LaTourette (R., Ohio) urged colleagues not to accept “a package put together by a bunch of sleep-deprived octogenarians on New Year’s Eve.”

Geriatric jokes aside, there is a serious downside to barring young people from seeking federal office: with the public debate determined and dominated by senior citizens, the country doesn’t get to hear from — and vote for — the interests of young adults, a phenomenon that Pomona College politics professor John Seery calls “generational guardianship.” In his book Too Young to Run?: A Proposal for an Age Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, Seery writes that the age restrictions imposed by the Constitution lower the incentive for young adults to participate in what is supposed to be a representative democracy. The system would be better served, he argues, if every grownup American were given the “twin pillars of enfranchisement”: the right to vote and the right to run for office.

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But Congress itself could also benefit from opening federal ballots to younger Americans. As the rest of the country reaps rewards from the hard work and collective brainpower of Generations X and Y, Congress is struggling to keep up, spinning its wheels in a bygone era when people thought the Internet was a “series of tubes.”

Of course, there are advantages to having elected officials with the experience and institutional knowledge that come only with age. But the world is changing quickly, and Capitol Hill could probably take some cues from people who aren’t afraid to move fast and break a few things.