California senator Dianne Feinstein is 89. On Tuesday, she somewhat reluctantly announced that she will not seek re-election to a post that she has held from 1992.
There is no doubt that she has had a distinguished career. “She’s a legend, a legend in California as the first woman senator,” said Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York and the majority leader. He said he had never seen such a long standing ovation at a caucus lunch as Ms. Feinstein received on Tuesday when she informed her colleagues of her decision. She gave a “heartwarming and tearful address,” he added.
Senator Feinstein moved in the highest political circles. She was once pressed to run for governor of California by President Bill Clinton. She was considered as a running mate to former Vice President Walter F. Mondale. And after the bitter 2008 Democratic primary, it was in her living room that former Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton met to make peace.
In recent years, however, as questions rose about her ability to lead the powerful Judiciary Committee, she was forced out as the top Democrat on the panel. She was deeply disappointed by the move, according to people close to her, who said she was fully competent to lead the panel and had dutifully waited her turn. But for years, her colleagues have been concerned about her memory issues. According to them, Ms. Feinstein “struggles to recall their names, frequently has little recollection of meetings or telephone conversations, and at times walks around in a state of befuddlement — including about why she has been dogged by questions about whether she was fit to serve in the Senate.”
Already last year The New York Times reported that, “On Capitol Hill, it is widely — though always privately — acknowledged that Ms. Feinstein suffers from acute short-term memory issues that on some days are ignorable, but on others raise concern among those who interact with her.”
Some of her colleagues said they did not expect her to serve out her term ending in 2024 under the circumstances, yet she refused to engage in conversations about stepping down. But when she did make the announcement on Tuesday she also made sure to emphasize that she will indeed serve out her term, “There are times for all things under the sun and I think that will be the right time,” she told reporters. Apparently, the time to call it quits has not yet come.
The question about term limits for all positions has been batted about in Washington for years. Currently, Representatives of the U.S. House have two-year terms and may be reelected indefinitely. U.S. Senators are elected to six-year terms and may be reelected indefinitely.
For a brief time, there were indeed term limits in effect. In 1995, as a result of the case of U.S. Term Limits v. Thornton, the citizens of 23 states had just passed laws putting term limits on their members of Congress. That meant just under half of all congressmen were term-limited, and Congress would soon be forced to propose a term limits amendment applying to everyone. But it was not to be. A self-interested politician in Arkansas and his donors made a court challenge to void that state’s law. Others followed and eventually it reached all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court (SCOTUS) where it was overturned. SCOTUS opined that since the Constitution sets forth the criteria that determines the requirements for Senators and Congressional Representatives, only the Constitution can limit the terms of Congress members.
Senator Feinstein is not the only near-nonagenarian in the Senate and the House. Indeed this is a political system that has come to be defined by extreme age. The 2024 presidential election is revving up. With a president who is almost 80 and throwing his hat in the ring for a second term, and the most likely opponent, Donald Trump, only a couple of years younger, the issue of age is now front and center. As candidates try to distinguish themselves from the other contenders Nikki Haley kicked off her campaign by calling for “mandatory mental competency tests for politicians over 75 years old.” Shocking as this blatant ageism may seem, and clearly an attempt to leverage her relatively young age of 51, given the current situation, this may not be a bad idea.
It is difficult not to be cynical about term limits and point out that the people who would have to create and move this legislation forward are the very same people who have no interest in being ousted from a cushy job. But when a nearly-90-year-old senator cannot remember her colleagues’ names or what was discussed at a meeting, yet can still serve until death if they so choose, it is fair to question the efficacy and wisdom of such a system.