A Teenage Congressman? It Could Work

Over the weekend, the Canadian parliament debated back to work legislation for its postal workers. That topic, in itself, could not be more boring to me (I mean seriously, Canadian politics?), but what I did find interesting was that, during the liberal party's filibuster of the conservatives' proposal, the parliament heard from Charmaine Borg, one of several young McGill students who have joined the chamber for its current term.

Could such a thing happen in the U.S.? No, because the Constitution forbids anyone younger than 25 from holding a federal representative office. This is a shame; though I would never vote for someone my age to hold federal office, there is no reason to prohibit it. When one is responsible enough to vote, one should be considered responsible enough to govern. However, I do not want to rant about the democratic virtues of allowing really young people to run for office because to repeal the offending part of the Constitution would take an amendment, and that is not going to happen anytime soon.

Instead, I want to focus on what can be done from a state level until 18-year-olds can run for the senate. Because state legislatures can set the qualifications of the representatives they send to Congress, they can enact some interesting changes. Here are two.

For one thing, state legislatures could enact age maximums to go along with the current age minimums. I am not sure what I ultimately think about this proposal, but I think it is worth considering. If really young people cannot be Senators, then really old people should not be either. Young people may be inexperienced, but older people may be out of touch, or worse, less sharp than they once were. If the real reason for age minimums is to get the best legislators, then we should embrace that principle consistently and limit out the very old as well. As a side benefit, a law putting a maximum on the age of representatives would increase the number of elections without an incumbent in them, thus opening up political office to more people.

Second – and this is probably my favorite policy proposal on its merits – states could pass term limits. On this proposal, a legislator at the federal level would become ineligible to run again after a set number of terms. There could even be ways to get creative here and have people become ineligible to run after a set number of terms unless they are elected by some large margin. Thus, really popular candidates could continue to serve their constituents.

In any case, term limits would have several benefits. They would prevent representatives (mainly senators) from growing ancient in their office, and allow new (presumably younger) challengers to have opportunities to run without facing an incumbent who can leverage their power to devastating effect. Also, federal representatives who finished their time in Washington, but were still interested in politics might return to local politics, enriching the overall experience of the state legislature.

Since I am being (kind of) practical in this article, I feel obligated to mention that the Supreme Court outlawed term limits (very mistakenly, I believe) in U.S. Term Limits v. Thornton, so states might have to find creative ways around this prohibition. One way could be to pass a law giving out heavy public funding for first time candidates. Such a law would function similarly to term limits and have many of its benefits, but might pass constitutional scrutiny as a kind of campaign finance law.

As I said, these are imperfect steps along the road to age equality in electoral qualifications, but they are interesting and possibly even beneficial for the state that enacts them as well.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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Jordan Wolf

My training is partially in philosophy and I'm interested in democratic theory, but more practically, I like thinking about media sophistication, data in politics, and ways to curb partisanship.

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