Dianne Feinstein and the Problem of the Oldest Senate Ever

Look, it’s proper there within the title: Senate, borrowed from the Romans and which means a “council of elders.” More than ever, the label matches. This is the oldest Senate, by common age, in American historical past, at 64 years. Jim Inhofe and Richard Shelby, each 87, have introduced plans to retire. Chuck Grassley, 88, is operating for reelection this fall. But even he’s a shade youthful than Dianne Feinstein, additionally 88.

Yesterday, the San Francisco Chronicle published a outstanding story about Feinstein, California’s senior senator. Some of the very best Washington protection is discovered within the tales that divulge to the general public what folks inside politics are saying privately, and the reporters Tal Kopan and Joe Garofoli bought folks to share deep issues about Feinstein’s health to be a senator. In the opening of the story, an unnamed Democratic member of Congress from California recounted that “they had to reintroduce themselves to Feinstein multiple times during an interaction that lasted several hours.” (Feinstein didn’t grant an interview to the Chronicle, however she mentioned in an announcement that she has no intention of stepping down. “There’s no question I’m still serving and delivering for the people of California, and I’ll put my record up against anyone’s.”)

The query of what to make of senators like Feinstein, who haven’t any want to go away the Senate however whose potential to do the job is doubtful, is just not new. But nobody has provide you with any good solutions to this point, and the matter will solely develop into extra urgent as Americans reside longer and the common age of senators advances.

Even at their finest, not all members are significantly sharp or engaged in coverage particulars, it have to be mentioned; Tommy Tubervilles do handle to get elected. But for many of her lengthy and spectacular profession, Feinstein was recognized for her acuity. “She was an intellectual and political force not that long ago, and that’s why my encounter with her was so jarring,” the member informed the Chronicle. “Because there was just no trace of that.” At occasions, Feinstein appears to be her previous self; however disconcertingly usually, she appears confused or depends closely on staffers.

Although the story lays issues out in additional element, and with extra insider Democratic dialogue, the whispers about Feinstein’s decline aren’t new. A 2020 New Yorker story lined a few of the similar floor. She raised eyebrows along with her reward for Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s affirmation hearings—a course of her social gathering colleagues hated—and along with her meandering questions in some classes.

The situation is just not Feinstein’s previous document, although, however her current and future. And refusing to know when to go away is a convention as venerable within the Senate as Feinstein. Over historical past, 301 senators have died in workplace, and whereas some have been struck down by accidents or sicknesses lengthy earlier than their time, others have been fairly aged. Some have remained mentally sharp however bodily ailing, jeopardizing their potential to serve; others have stayed bodily match however struggled mentally.

In 2014, my then-colleague Molly Ball wrote about attending Thad Cochran’s marketing campaign occasions in Mississippi and seen him slipping. “As he made his way toward the exit, the senator held out his hand to me. I had met and interviewed him less than half an hour before. ‘Hello, how are you doing?’ he said with a kindly smile. ‘I’m Thad Cochran.’”

The Cochran marketing campaign protested, and he received reelection, however ignoring Cochran’s issues was inconceivable. In 2017, he missed a number of weeks whereas ailing, and when he got here again he appeared confused about work. In one case, he voted in favor of an modification earlier than staffers corrected him to vote no. The similar month, a Capitol Hill pharmacist informed STAT News he routinely despatched Alzheimer’s medication to congressional places of work. Cochran lastly retired the next spring, and died in 2019.

Strom Thurmond, the oldest senator in historical past, held on even longer, staying in workplace till he was 100, regardless of documented issues about his health for the job. He’d mentioned he wished to die in workplace; as an alternative leaving workplace appeared to spell the tip for him, and he died shortly after retirement.

Several years later, Robert Byrd eclipsed Thurmond’s document to develop into the longest-serving senator. By the tip of his time period, the West Virginian was frail. In 2008, the Senate allowed proxy voting for sooner or later to permit him to vote from a hospital; in 2009, with Democratic priorities on the road, he was wheeled into the Senate to forged votes shortly after being discharged from care. Byrd died in 2010, whereas in workplace. Last yr, Democrats experienced a gentle panic when Pat Leahy, 82 and the president professional tempore of the Senate (a title afforded probably the most senior member of the bulk) was hospitalized, although he quickly recovered. Assuming Leahy serves out his time period, he’ll quickly cross Thurmond within the document books for the size of his tenure.

To some critics, the questions on Feinstein are unfair and even sexist. MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell provided a quasi-dismissal of the story on Twitter, writing: “I understand concerns about Dianne Feinstein but read whispers about her in this Senate context: at least 50 senators are 100% dependent on staff, most senators are over 90% dependent on staff & Strom Thurmond died in office in 2003 at age 100 long after obvious mental decline.” In truth, this solely underscores the hazard: None of that is reassuring, and if Feinstein is just not an outlier, the problem is even steeper than many voters would possibly understand.

The senescent Senate is only one instance of America’s bigger political gerontocracy drawback. Joe Biden was as soon as the sixth-youngest senator in historical past; now he’s the oldest president, and if Donald Trump had received reelection, he would have claimed that doubtful honor. Speaker Nancy Pelosi is 82. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is 80. Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is a comparative spring hen at 71, although that makes him significantly older than each single member of the primary Senate.

But structural components of the Senate make it significantly inclined to the ravages of age. Voters merely have fewer possibilities to conclude {that a} politician is not as much as the job. Members serve six-year phrases, and the distinction between a candidate’s potential at ages 68 and 74, to say nothing of 82 and 88 or 84 and 90, may very well be appreciable. Incumbency additionally offers senators an enormous benefit, main them to stay round longer. Feinstein confronted the stoutest problem of her Senate profession in 2018—and nonetheless received by a really snug 8 %.

If voters aren’t well-positioned to resolve the issue, who’s? In concept, the Senate might expel a member. In apply, no senator has been tossed for something apart from involvement in insurrections, and never for the reason that Civil War. Term limits might sound alluring, however size of service and age don’t essentially correlate. Age limits may very well be a greater possibility, however they increase their very own questions, since some members lose their contact younger, whereas others stay sharp for much longer. Besides, any change would require a constitutional modification, for the reason that Supreme Court dominated in a term-limits case in 1995 that no legislation can set up limits on congressional service stricter than what’s specified by the Constitution.

The prospects for any constitutional modification within the present political local weather appear dim, and one can assume that many senators—in addition to aspiring senators—would do their finest to withstand such an modification: After all, why restrict themselves, particularly in the event that they haven’t any plans to develop into senile? This debate is bound to proceed, although, as growing old senators provide many extra alternatives to seek for an answer.

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