OPINION: Wellness Tests Should Be Required for Government Officials

Politicians make decisions that impact the well-being of citizens worldwide. Shouldn’t we be making sure they have the mental sharpness themselves?

10 mins read

This story is syndicated from The Breeze, the newspaper of James Madison University in Harrisonburg, VA. The original version of the story ran here.

Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) froze for the first time while giving a speech on July 26. After a few minutes into speaking to the media, McConnell stood still for 19 seconds and stared into blank space. After this continued for about a minute, his peers guided him away from the microphone, and he followed with a hollow look in his eyes. 

Clips of this incident went viral, raising concerns about McConnell’s health. Unfortunately, a few weeks later, McConnell froze again at another event after being asked if he was going to run for reelection. 

Dianne Feinstein, former senator of California, had brought attention to her health prior to her passing on Sept. 29, as the New York Times editorial board questioned her ability to make coherent decisions. These questions were presented after she was seen stumbling over words during a Senate appropriations hearing vote. She has also been out of work multiple times because of various illnesses. 

This shouldn’t be happening to the people who are at the forefront of our country. As people age, it’s common for health concerns to arise; it’s natural. Though, for the leaders of our country, it’s important they make sure they’re in good physical and mental health to make crucial decisions for the country.

There have been numerous times where President Joe Biden has either been unable to coherently finish a sentence, state facts correctly, fallen or just seemed lost. In September 2022, Biden even went as far as to ask where former representative Jackie Walorski was during a White House conference on ending hunger. As Walorski had previously sponsored legislation on world hunger, Biden thanked her and looked into the audience and asked, “Jackie, are you here? Where’s Jackie?” Walorski had been killed in a car accident a month earlier.  

It’s unacceptable that the people running our country are mentally and physically deteriorating. Spokespeople continue to play it off, as White House Communications Director Ben LaBolt claimed Biden was “fine” after he tripped over a sandbag at a U.S. Air Force graduation ceremony on June 1. 

More recently, on Saturday, Jan. 20, Nikki Haley questioned her opponent Donald Trump’s fitness to run the country, citing concerns about his mental state due to repeatedly confusing Nancy Pelosi with her in his speech. During the speech, Trump blamed Haley for turning down security his administration offered during the storming of the Capitol on January 6, 2021. However, according to Haley, those accusations were supposed to be aimed at Pelosi rather than her. She then proceeded to say that we shouldn’t have to question the mental fitness of someone who could potentially be our next president. However, unfortunately that’s become common practice within recent years. 

According to a report by the Congressional Research Service, the average age for U.S. senators is 64, and the average age for U.S House members is 58. This makes Congress today the oldest it’s been in 20 years. 

This brings concern, as researchers at Duke University showed that people’s physical decline often begins in their 50s. While age doesn’t necessarily determine health, statistics show that there should be health requirements to be in office once a certain age is reached. 

A poll conducted in July 2023  revealed that 79% of Americans believe there should be a maximum age limit to serve in office. With 82% of Republicans and 76% Democrats voting on the implementation of a limit, it’s clear that this issue isn’t polarized. While Republicans and Democrats recently have been unable to agree on many issues, this is one area where there seems to be some consensus. 

Senior political science major Kentron Yeh said there’s a need for mental sharpness when making large decisions. 

“When you’re making any legislation or researching what a policy does, a sharp mind is not just necessary, it’s actually very vital,” Yeh said. “You’re dealing with everyone’s lives, their money, their education, etc. So a cognitive mind is the best way to understand the cause and effect of your decisions.” 

Though many people are in agreement with creating an age limit for people in office, doing this is more complicated than it may seem. The Constitution set an age floor for those in office: at least 35 years old for presidents and 25 for representatives. Though, there’s no age limit stated within the Constitution, so establishing one would require an amendment.

Constitutional amendments require a two-thirds vote in both the U.S. House and Senate, followed by ratification by three-quarters of the states. Unfortunately, because most of the members in Congress are either close to or above what an age limit could be, it’s unlikely they would vote to adopt this rule. 

An alternative to an age limit, would be to administer health and wellness tests, which would measure an official’s overall physical and mental health. If they’re unable to reach a certain score that would prove mental and physical stability, then they can’t run for office. 

While there’s an argument that requiring government officials to pass a health test would infringe on their right to privacy, the other side can validly say public interest, transparency and accountability, and national security is more important. Yeh argued that average people need to be tested for various daily activities to prove our capabilities, why shouldn’t politicians? 

“Us as students, don’t we need to take tests every day in order to prove high performance?” Yeh asked. “For driving, you have to take a visual test for safety, which isn’t public record. But with these politicians, I think what can be transparent and still hold them accountable is having a private doctor review their health to determine if they’re qualified to serve.”

The public elects and trusts their government officials to properly run the country and make decisions that ultimately affect them. If a serious health condition could impair their decision-making or ability to govern, it’s in the public’s interest to know. 

It’s also the government official’s responsibility to be transparent and be held accountable. If they aren’t physically or mentally capable of carrying out their duties, the country’s people have the right to know. The decisions they’re making don’t just affect one person but rather millions of others. In a larger and more serious scope, the same applies for national security and the ability to safely make decisions that wouldn’t put the country in harm’s way. 

To avoid infringing on people’s right to privacy, tests to prove an official is fit to govern should be narrowly tailored to serve a compelling public interest. Tests administered would need to be conducted in a nondiscriminatory manner, and the results must be confidential. The only public knowledge would be that the official in question either is or isn’t capable of properly carrying out government duties.

There needs to be changes implemented in our legislation to avoid allowing politicians who aren’t mentally competent from making large decisions. Having officials unable to successfully finish a debate or interview makes the country look unprofessional. The decisions these officials make impact millions of people, and they shouldn’t be handled lightly. 

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