Updated at 4:15 p.m. ET on April 18, 2022.
Look, it’s right there in the name: Senate, borrowed from the Romans and meaning a “council of elders.” More than ever, the label fits. This is the oldest Senate, by average age, in American history, at 64 years. Jim Inhofe and Richard Shelby, both 87, have announced plans to retire. Chuck Grassley, 88, is running for reelection this fall. But even he is a shade younger than Dianne Feinstein, also 88.
Yesterday, the San Francisco Chronicle published a remarkable story about Feinstein, California’s senior senator. Some of the best Washington coverage is found in the stories that reveal to the public what people inside politics are saying privately, and the reporters Tal Kopan and Joe Garofoli got people to share deep concerns about Feinstein’s fitness 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 did not grant an interview to the Chronicle, but she said in a statement 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 question of what to make of senators like Feinstein, who have no desire to leave the Senate but whose ability to do the job is in doubt, is not new. But no one has come up with any good answers so far, and the matter will become only more pressing as Americans live longer and the average age of senators advances.
Even at their best, not all members are particularly sharp or engaged in policy details, it must be said; Tommy Tubervilles do manage to get elected. But for most of her long and impressive career, Feinstein was known 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 told the Chronicle. “Because there was just no trace of that.” At times, Feinstein seems to be her old self; but disconcertingly often, she seems confused or relies heavily on staffers.
Although the story lays concerns out in more detail, and with more insider Democratic discussion, the whispers about Feinstein’s decline are not new. A 2020 New Yorker story covered some of the same ground. She raised eyebrows with her praise for Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation hearings—a process her party colleagues hated—and with her meandering questions in some sessions.
The issue is not Feinstein’s past record, though, but her present and future. And refusing to know when to leave is a tradition as venerable in the Senate as Feinstein. Over history, 301 senators have died in office, and though some were struck down by accidents or illnesses long before their time, others were quite elderly. Some have remained mentally sharp but physically ill, jeopardizing their ability to serve; others have stayed physically fit but struggled mentally.
In 2014, my then-colleague Molly Ball wrote about attending Thad Cochran’s campaign events in Mississippi and noticed 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 campaign protested, and he won reelection, but ignoring Cochran’s problems was impossible. In 2017, he missed several weeks while ill, and when he came back he seemed confused about work. In one case, he voted in favor of an amendment before staffers corrected him to vote no. The same month, a Capitol Hill pharmacist told STAT News he routinely sent Alzheimer’s drugs to congressional offices. Cochran finally retired the following spring, and died in 2019.
Strom Thurmond, the oldest senator in history, held on even longer, staying in office until he was 100, despite documented concerns about his fitness for the job. He’d said he wanted to die in office; instead, leaving office seemed to spell the end for him, and he died shortly after retirement.
Several years later, Robert Byrd eclipsed Thurmond’s record to become the longest-serving senator. By the end of his term, the West Virginian was frail. In 2008, the Senate allowed proxy voting for one day to allow him to vote from a hospital; in 2009, with Democratic priorities on the line, he was wheeled into the Senate to cast votes shortly after being discharged from care. Byrd died in 2010, while in office. Last year, Democrats experienced a mild panic when Pat Leahy, 82 and the president pro tempore of the Senate (a title afforded the most senior member of the majority) was hospitalized, though he soon recovered. Assuming Leahy serves out his term, he’ll soon pass Thurmond in the record books for the length of his tenure.
To some critics, the questions about Feinstein are unfair or even sexist. MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell offered 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 fact, this only underscores the danger: None of this is reassuring, and if Feinstein is not an outlier, the challenge is even steeper than many citizens might realize.
The senescent Senate is just one example of America’s larger political gerontocracy problem. Joe Biden was once the sixth-youngest senator in history; now he’s the oldest president, and if Donald Trump had won reelection, he would have claimed that dubious honor. Speaker Nancy Pelosi is 82. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is 80. Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is a comparative spring chicken at 71, though that makes him considerably older than every single member of the first Senate.
But structural elements of the Senate make it particularly susceptible to the ravages of age. Voters simply have fewer chances to conclude that a politician is no longer up to the job. Members serve six-year terms, and the difference between a candidate’s ability at ages 68 and 74, to say nothing of 82 and 88 or 84 and 90, could be considerable. Incumbency also gives senators a huge advantage, leading them to stick around longer. Feinstein faced her stoutest challenge in years in 2018—and still won by a very comfortable 8 percent.
If voters aren’t well positioned to solve the problem, who is? In theory, the Senate could expel a member. In practice, no senator has been tossed for anything other than involvement in insurrections, and not since the Civil War. Term limits might seem alluring, but length of service and age don’t necessarily correlate. Age limits could be a better option, but they raise their own questions, given that some members lose their touch young, while others remain sharp much longer. Besides, any change would require a constitutional amendment, because the Supreme Court ruled in a 1995 term-limits case that no law can establish limits on congressional service stricter than what is laid out in the Constitution.
The prospects for any constitutional amendment in the current political climate seem dim, and one can assume that many senators—as well as aspiring senators—would do their best to resist such an amendment: After all, why limit themselves, especially if they have no plans to become senile? This debate is sure to continue, though, as aging senators offer many more opportunities to search for a solution.
This story originally said Feinstein's 2018 election represented her stoutest challenge; in fact, she won by a narrower margin running for her first full term in 1994.