Age Limits versus Ageism

President Joe Biden

President Joe Biden signing an executive order

Late last month just after announcing her run for president, former South Carolina Governor and UN Ambassador Nikki Haley opened a can of worms when she proposed that politicians over the age of 75 be required to undergo a competency test. Under the proposal, Haley, who is just 51, would not have to prove her competence, even though she once excoriated Trump for not disavowing white supremacists, then willingly accepted a position in his administration. Seems like an opportunistic, brown-nosing hypocrite with poor judgment should be required to take a competency test despite her age. But I digress.

Haley’s proposal came on the heels of President Biden reporting for his annual physical. Uncle Joe is now 80 years old, and if he wins a second term, he’d be 82 at his inauguration and 86 when his successor is sworn in. Biden passed the physical with flying colors, but his increasingly slurred speech, forgetfulness, and slow gate are becoming more and more of a concern for Democratic strategists who worry that their leader might not be up to the rigors of another campaign.

Surprisingly, one thing Ms. Haley has not yet suggested is an amendment to the Constitution that would establish maximum age limits for anyone serving in an elected federal office. Such an amendment would be consistent with existing law. After all, the Constitution already requires a minimum age for serving in the House (25), Senate (30), and as president (35), so why not establish a maximum age for each? Moreover, unlike subjective competency tests, which could be open to interpretation, maximum age limits would be clear-cut with no shades of gray hair. Still, this kind of amendment would, no doubt, be vigorously opposed by the same folks who oppose term limits. Their belief is that voters should have the right to re-elect whoever they choose and that any sort of limit on terms or age would infringe on that right.

Such a libertarian view of politics is all well and good in theory, but not when it adversely impacts the rights of others. For example, because there were no term limits or age limits in Congress, South Carolina senator Strom Thurmond, an avowed white supremacist, was allowed to serve until his death, at the age of 100. On the flip side, despite advancing age and serious health problems, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg refused to retire at a time when President Obama could have appointed a like-minded civil rights champion to succeed her. Instead, she died in office at 87 and gave Trump a clear path to fill the Court with right-wing, activist judges. Roe v. Wade advocates are probably wishing that term and age limits had been in place years ago.

Of course, any discussion of age limits invokes fears of ageism. That’s why in 1967, Congress passed the “Discrimination in Employment Act”, which prohibited companies from forcing someone to retire who still wanted to work past 65. The Act did, however, allow for exceptions to the rule, such as mandating retirement if an employee could no longer effectively perform his or her job. And that brings us back to Nikki Haley’s proposed competency tests for politicians over the age of 75. If those tests could be administered fairly and objectively, and if an elderly candidate couldn’t make the grade, then that’s something the public needs to know before they go vote. Whether or not the results of such a test should automatically disqualify a candidate, however, is another matter altogether. That’s why, in the end, establishing term limits or maximum age limits (or both) for federal office holders would be preferable to Haley’s flawed testing scheme.


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