Old as the Hill: Term Limits an Answer to an Aging Congress Dr. Steven J. Allen ● May 4, 2022
WASHINGTON, DC – Diane Feinstein is losing it.
In April, Feinstein, California’s senior U.S. Senator, was the subject of a San Francisco Chronicle article alleging that she is rapidly declining in her ability to do her job.
The Chronicle said its sources for the story included three former Feinstein staffers and four fellow Senators, three of them Democrats. “It’s bad,” said a fellow Democratic Senator, “and it’s getting worse.” One source said that the Senate Majority Leader, Chuck Schumer of New York, had had “painful” discussions with Feinstein about her stepping down, but that she forgot about them.
The New York Times followed up on the story, reporting that Feinstein “sometimes struggles to recall the names of colleagues, frequently has little recollection of meetings or telephone conversations, and at times walks around in a state of befuddlement.”
The New Yorker magazine reported in 2020 on a hearing at which Feinstein questioned Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey. She asked Dorsey about a tweet from President Trump, suggesting that it should have been censored, which would have been unethical and illegal. According to the magazine, “after Dorsey responded, Feinstein asked him the same question again, reading it word for word, along with the Trump tweet. Her inflection was eerily identical. Feinstein looked and sounded just as authoritative, seemingly registering no awareness that she was repeating herself verbatim.”
Feinstein is a member of the oldest U.S. Senate ever, in which the average age is 65. The average age in the House of Representatives is 59. The Speaker of the House and House Majority Leader are 82 and the House Majority Whip (deputy leader) is 81. The Senate Minority (Republican) Leader is 80; the Senate Majority Leader is a relatively young 71 while his deputy is 77. The president pro tem of the Senate, who’s next in line for the presidency after the vice president and the Speaker, is 82. He’s retiring, but his hand-picked successor for his Senate seat, if elected in November, will be 75. If Republicans win the Senate, the man most likely to become president pro tem next January will be 89.
Often, members of Congress stay in office despite significant cognitive decline. Thad Cochran of Mississippi was in bad shape prior to his retirement in 2018 at age 80, with Politico reporting that he was “frail” and “disoriented” in his final months. It was likewise for Robert Byrd of West Virginia, who died in office at 92. John McCain, an American hero for his service in Vietnam, was so irrational during the period shortly before his death that he promoted the nutty conspiracy theory that Donald Trump was a Russian asset. McCain died in office in 2017, four days before his 82nd birthday.
Strom Thurmond of South Carolina stayed in the Senate until he was 100 years old, despite the fact that his death in office would have put his seat in the hands of the opposing party. He left office in 2003 six months before he died. In his final six-year term, Thurmond’s staff did all the work. Feinstein today, likewise; the sardonic joke circulating recently among California Democrats, referring to their state’s other Senator, is “We’ve got a great senator in [Alex] Padilla and an experienced staff in Feinstein’s office.”
A Capitol Hill pharmacist sparked a controversy in 2017 when he discussed the medications, including drugs for Alzheimer’s patients, that his pharmacy delivered to members of Congress: “At first it’s cool, and then you realize, I’m filling some drugs that are for some pretty serious health problems as well. And these are the people that are running the country. It makes you kind of sit back and say, ‘Wow, they’re making the highest laws of the land and they might not even remember what happened yesterday.’”
The issue of what happens when a political leader descends into dementia is very much in the minds of Americans due to the declining cognitive state of the President, who spent 36 years as a U.S. Senator. Had he not become vice president in 2009, he would today be the senior member of the Senate, making him, as the senior member of the majority party, the Senate’s president pro tempore, next in line for the presidency after the vice president and the Speaker of the House. As one wag put it, “A demented Joe Biden only three heartbeats from the presidency – that would be really scary!”
Of course, many older members are able to function well, and, it can be argued, bring valuable experience to the job. The problem is that Congressional staffers work very hard to cover up the cognitive decline of their bosses, and that members of the news media gladly cover up the mental deterioration of politicians they like. Why are they going after Feinstein now? Why do you hear about her dementia, but not about others in the same situation?
Because she’s considered too nice to Republican colleagues and insufficiently leftwing. She has expressed outrage at the CIA’s illegal spying on Senators and about agency officials’ lying to cover it up; her position is considered an afront by Progressives who are closely aligned with the CIA. Today, radical Democrats see her as a relic, they want her seat for one of their own, and they are trying to push her out of the way. In contrast, if someone favored by the Left – say, Bernie Sanders – showed the same signs of dementia, reports of decline would be spiked; you’d never hear about it.
After 65, the current average age of a Senator, the risk of Alzheimer’s disease or vascular dementia doubles every five years. At 80, one person in six suffers from some form of dementia. As members of Congress get older and more of them suffer from age-related disease, the ability to paint a political leader as senile, or to refrain from doing so, is a tool useful to the Left.
What is to be done? The Constitution does set age limits for members of Congress, but those limits are minimums: age 25 for House members and age 30 for Senators. Some reformers have proposed a maximum age as well, noting that mandatory retirement for commercial airline pilots is at 65 and for air traffic controllers is at 56. Senator Bill Cassidy of Louisiana has proposed cognition tests for officials all three branches of the federal government.
But given the graying of America, age maximums and testing are unlikely to be enacted. Besides, it’s not age itself that’s the problem, it’s the fact that people get elected to Congress and, using the advantages of incumbency, hold onto their seats for decade after decade. Not all politicians are bad, but even the best of them (with rare exceptions) eventually get acclimated to Washington, become part of the social scene, and fall under the influence of corrupt DC institutions – the bureaucracy, the lobbyists on K Street, the Washington Post, the military/industrial complex and much of the Intelligence Community. They lose touch with the people they are supposed to represent.
A better solution is term limits. People are familiar with the concept; the President is term-limited, as are many governors and other elected officials. A term limits measure has been put forth by U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Rep. Francis Rooney (R-Florida) in the form of a Constitutional amendment. The amendment would limit U.S. Senators to two six-year terms and members of the U.S. House of Representatives to three two-year terms.
Term limits for members of Congress would take away politicians’ ability to perpetuate themselves in the House or the Senate, and would make it nearly impossible for them to cling to office right up until the bitter end. In cases like that of Dianne Feinstein, we’d be doing them a favor.
Dr. Steven J. Allen (JD, PhD) is the vice chair of Americans for Term Limits.
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