Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) on Monday announced he'll retire at the end of his term next year. Elected in 1974 in the wake of Watergate, he's the chamber's longest-serving Democrat, and, in most businesses, the retirement of an 81-year old after nearly five decades in his job would be big news.
In politics, it's an increasingly rare exception. Amazingly, Leahy is only the fifth-oldest sitting senator. A further 23 of his colleagues are in their 70s, while just one is under 40.
Respect for advanced age is built into the idea of a Senate, the name of which is derived from the Latin word senex or "old man." The Constitution sets a minimum age of 30 for senators. Still, the continued service of figures like Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who turned 88 in September, raise the question of whether gerontocracy can go too far. Long-serving lawmakers have experience and relationships that may help them deliver benefits to their constituents. But they're also susceptible to physical and cognitive decline that makes it harder for them to do their jobs.
Despite their self-image as the party of youth, the problem is especially severe for Democrats. In the other house of Congress, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) are both octogenarians. At 78, President Biden is almost there. Before her death in 2020 at the age of 87, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg infuriated progressives by refusing to retire under a Democratic president. As a result, she was replaced by the comparatively youthful (and conservative) Justice Amy Coney Barrett, who is likely to serve for decades.
There are no easy solutions for our aging national leadership. If voters didn't like older candidates, they wouldn't keep returning them to office. And mandatory retirement, used in Canada's Senate, would require a constitutional amendment.
Yet Leahy's decision highlights one more way in which power has been concentrated in small group at the expense of the rest of the population. Under the circumstances, he should be thanked for doing the right thing. Let's hope he's not the last.