Darrell Berkheimer: Are millennials stymied by geezers in Congress?
I have been reading that millennials face many insecurities that can only be properly addressed by a revolution of changes in our national attitudes and operations. And one of the biggest stumbling blocks appears to be the geezers in Congress who are failing to adequately respond to what millennials consider the most significant issues of our time.
Apparently it’s an unwillingness of the older and longer-serving leaders in Congress to assign priority to the domestic changes cited as most important to millennials. Those issues include climate change, income inequities, discrimination and poverty.
Why, I ask myself, is Congress not responding more to the demands of millennials when it has become obvious that millennials are now the largest voting bloc, having surpassed the baby boomer generation and our elderly generation, categorized as “traditionalists.”
I believe the answer lies in related issues being raised after the brief hospitalization of President Donald Trump because he tested positive to contracting COVID-19. Among those issues are specific questions about the effectiveness of our aging government leaders.
For instance: “What should our elderly leaders reveal about their health?”
That question was asked in a New York Times article by Ben Smith, the Times media columnist, after he observed that many of America’s top politicians are in their 80s.
Smith noted rumors, and apparent truths, that prevail in our nation’s capital as they relate to infirmities, confusion and disorientation exhibited by some of our aging leaders.
Smith observed that such reporting is considered “impolite” by many journalists working in our nation’s capital — despite the “totally obvious, and a natural feature of America’s recent slide toward gerontocracy.”
Smith’s commentary prompted me to do a little research into the ages of our Congress members. Of our 100 senators, I counted 27 of them — more than 25% — are aged 70 to 87. Another 10 will turn 70 during the next two years; and 47 of them are 65 or older right now.
In addition, I counted 85 in the House of Representatives who are in the 70s and 80s.
At the risk of alienating some friends and readers who are at, or near, my own age of 79, I must point out just how we are deteriorating from what we used to be.
We are forgetful. It takes us much longer to remember names, facts and figures. Confusion comes easier, which we sometimes blame on hearing loss. We’re slower as we notice the lack of stamina, and continuing aches that weren’t there a few years ago. Most of us also rely on several medications to get us through each day.
And I saw that another The Union columnist, Carole Carson, in noting that she, too, is approaching 79, wrote: “After a lifetime of abundant energy, I now must budget my activities. Admitting that a rest in the afternoon is a good thing and not a waste of time is a milestone.”
I believe we also share in two more, quite common aging traits – both the resistance to change, and procrastination in dealing with changes that already have occurred. And just maybe they are major problems resulting in the dysfunction and action delays exhibited by our U.S. Congress.
In his Times commentary, Smith writes that “searching questions about everything from sleep to cognition shouldn’t be off limits” for journalists covering the nation’s capital. And he adds that “the whispers by reporters and lawmakers’ aides about feeling as if they work in a nursing home should find their way into the record” — despite the respect journalists have for how astute those lawmakers were in the past.
With those issues in mind, has our congressional leadership become too remote from the thoughts, desires and views of our youngest generations — especially workers in their 20s and 30s. I know that I see myself as having difficulty in understanding the actions and reasoning of those younger folks.
Smith’s article in the times also refers to another written by Derek Thompson, which appeared last March in The Atlantic. Thompson observed that “The U.S. government is a creaky machine whose most crucial cogs could be generously described as vintage.” He added that the average age is Congress is “near an all-time high.”
Thompson wrote that “gerontocracy is a cousin to plutocracy. Power concentrated in the hands of the old people who are also rich will predictably lead to policies that benefit the old and the rich, at the expense of the less privileged.”
He concluded, “It’s unlikely that young people will notch many policy wins in a government whose medium age (of its leaders) is over 70.”
His article closes by emphasizing that “the most important challenge before the U.S. and the world — climate change — is profoundly intergenerational. Solving it requires a farsighted approach in diplomacy, invention, and technological deployment that a creaky old country will simply never master. The crisis urgently requires the input and ideas of the generations that will be most affected by it.”
The comments by those two writers bring me to these questions:
Why do we have this situation? Why is our government such a creaky machine?
I see no simple or single answer. But I can identify several major factors. They are:
A government that operates on the seniority system;
A government that fails to control the corrupting nature of corporate financing of election campaigns;
A government that provides for 80% of incumbents to be elected, and
A government that has more than 100 members in Congress who have served 35 years or more because there are no term limits.
In somewhat of a warning, Atlantic writer Thompson noted that “At the end of the Cold War, a common criticism of the U.S.S.R. was that the country was crumbling in part because the Soviet politburo was too old and out of touch … with a changing world.”
Doesn’t that indicate we’re overdue to change our creaky old federal machine?
Darrell Berkheimer, who lives in Grass Valley, is a frequent contributor to The Union. He has seven books available through Amazon. His sixth, Essays from The Golden Throne, includes 60 columns published by The Union, plus a dozen western travel and photo essays. Contact him at email@example.com.
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