California Sen. Dianne Feinstein is in the spotlight following a New Yorker report about internal concerns over her apparent cognitive decline. The story relies primarily on the testimony of sources on background, who spoke “with respect for her accomplished career” but believe “her short-term memory has grown so poor that she often forgets she has been briefed on a topic.”
Earlier this year, the California senator received backlash from progressives over her handling of far right Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s Senate confirmation hearing, and now faces scrutiny for an entirely different reason. As a result, Feinstein, who is the oldest sitting U.S. Senator at 87 years old, was reportedly asked twice by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer to step down from her leadership position on the Judiciary Committee following Barrett's confirmation, but she forgot their first exchange, sources said.
Those familiar with her situation also told the New Yorker's Jane Mayer that Feinstein will forget “what she has said and [get] upset when she can’t keep up,” and while she seems herself at times, her staff added she is at “other times unreachable.” As one former Senate aide told Mayer, “The staff is in such a bad position. They have to defend her and make her seem normal.”
These comments paired with her recent stumble while questioning Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey during a Senate hearing last month — Feinstein posed the same question twice in a row — have many discussing whether it’s time for the Senator to step down altogether. But Congress’s aging problem isn’t really about Feinstein at all — it's not even really about her age, either. Rather, there is a long history of political leaders in U.S. government who outlasted their time.
Former South Carolina senator Strom Thurmond, who served to age 100, was described as confused and unable to adequately perform his duties by the end of his term. Meanwhile, former Arizona Sen. John McCain, who served until age 81, struggled during his questioning of former FBI director James Comey during the 2016 investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails. McCain went on to receive praise as an anti-Trump hero. Until her recent death in September, the entire fate of American democracy rested on 87-year-old former Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, who remained on the court through her battle with metastatic pancreatic cancer.
From the halls of Congress, to the White House, to the Supreme Court, some of the highest positions in U.S. government are held by people in their 70s and older. The core problem isn’t necessarily about age, either. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who both ran for president in the 2020 election, have arguably remained impassioned advocates for working class Americans, even at ages 71 and 79 respectively. Still, it is essential to recognize when our representatives can no longer effectively do their jobs, especially when those jobs include leading accountability hearings in the Congress and negotiating legislation that millions of people depend on.
But such a reckoning would also require a larger cultural conversation about Americans working while sick, and the fact that public health isn't typically treated as a priority by political officials. Look no further than the federal government's handling of the coronavirus pandemic, as millions of people are forced to choose between going to work to make ends meet, and staying home as the deadly virus surges across the country. Such a change in work culture would also require an overhaul of the systems and policies that prevent people from leaving work due to illness. An October report from Robert Half found that 90% of American workers go to work while sick, either due to pressure from a boss or because they can’t afford not to.
“Our culture is reflected and reinforced by public policy,” Caitlyn Collins, an assistant professor of sociology at Washington University in St. Louis told the Washington Post in 2016. “We are the only industrialized country with no federally mandated paid sick days. When the federal government tells you that you have no right to sick days, they’re telling you that you have no right to self-care or to care for loved ones.”
And while most Americans don’t have a choice of whether or not to continue working — even through illness, age, or other conditions — there is an urgent need for change to the seniority system in Congress. Senior officials who hold some of the most important positions in government need to step down when they are dealing with, as Mayer describes, “disruptive health problems that clearly [undermine] the Senate’s ability to function.”
So rather than merely call out Feinstein, who very well may have outlasted the appropriate amount of time in the Senate, let's point to all the other leaders — current and past — who have done the same. Whether it be due to age, mental decline, or just an inability to represent the needs of their constituency, the crisis in American leadership is not relegated to Dianne Feinstein — it's much deeper, widespread, and deserving of real attention and action.