This post was researched and written by Jacob Hiserman, one of our BCPM @ Poage Library graduate student assistants, who uncovered these documents while processing our Alan Steelman collection.
Imagine a twenty-two-year old freshman Congressman in one of the House of Representatives’s iconic wooden chairs listening to a speech on an appropriations bill. Could an American that young really contribute to Congressional discourse? Could they accurately and steadfastly represent the interests of their constituency? Many persons today might object to such a low age requirement for Congressmen or Congresswomen.
The seemingly immutable minimum age requirements set forth in the Constitution of the United States (twenty-five years of age for Representatives and thirty years of age for Senators) were once challenged in Congress. In February 1975, Congressman Alan Steelman of Texas’s 5th Congressional District co-sponsored a Joint Resolution with sixteen other Members of the House to amend the Constitution’s prescriptions on the age of Congressional members. The resolution sought to lower the minimum age for Representatives to twenty-two and that of Senators to twenty-seven.
At least two sources produced by the Legislative Reference Service and the Congressional Research Service detail historical precedent for lowering these age requirements: the Constitutional debates and proceedings of the early-American Founding era and the Federalist Papers.
The resolution’s sponsor, Representative Robert F. Drinan of Massachusetts’s 4th Congressional District, argued that the resolution would bring the ages of Congressmen in line with minimum age requirements of U.S. state legislatures and other Western democratic governments. In addition, the passage of the Twenty-Sixth Amendment in 1971, which lowered the federal voting age to eighteen, remained fresh in the minds of Congress in 1975. Thus, the arguments for this resolution were rooted in both historical and contemporary examples.
Steelman saw this resolution as a positive measure for the nation and for the democratic process. Though his materials do not give any direct testimony from Steelman on this issue, they do suggest his opinion through his aide, Marvin Collins. In addition, Steelman was the youngest Representative in Congress at the time – only twenty-nine years of age. Perhaps he identified with the resolution’s attempt to expand the burden of civic responsibility to younger Americans. Sharing this identity may have moved him to co-sponsor the resolution, though it never became law.
Ultimately, this somewhat odd and challenging resolution illuminates an underrepresented facet of American democracy: the ever-present tension between youth and maturity. This struggle continues even today as seen in the presidential race between Barack Obama and John McCain, Paul Ryan replacing John Boehner as House Speaker, and Marco Rubio’s rivalry with fellow Floridian Jeb Bush. Though this tension may never truly abate, hopefully it will continue to inspire today’s youth to follow in Steelman’s footsteps and carry their fresh outlook onto the floor of Congress.