Dianne Feinstein Proves We Need Term Limits in Congress

Can Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) still do her job at 89? The elderly lawmaker missed nearly three months of work recovering from a bad case of shingles, blocking federal judicial nominations from the Senate Judiciary Committee and even causing Democrats to lose a critical vote on a resolution regarding one of President Biden’s new emissions regulations. . Now she’s back and still unable to work full time with questions about her mental competence swirling around. And while no one can force Feinstein to retire, the ugly situation calls for a re-examination of Senate term limits.

Feinstein was first elected in 1992 at the age of 59 and was re-elected five more times. Incumbent senators, especially in strongly Democratic or Republican states, are very hard to beat, and voters seem willing to return them to office long after they’ve senescent. Last year, for example, Iowans returned 89-year-old Chuck Grassley to the Senate for an eighth term. And while voters frequently express concern about older candidates to pollsters, they don’t seem to respond to those concerns on Election Day. As a result, the 117th Congress introduced the oldest Senate in history, with members reminiscing about a bygone era of collegiality that Republicans ended long ago.

There hasn’t been a serious push to limit congressional terms in a generation. And if it seems term limits have no friends, that’s partly because they’re still indelibly associated with the ’90s GOP, which co-opted the idea of ​​the populist race of Ross Perot in 1992 as President. For Perot, there was nothing worse than seeing the Congressional election as what he called “a lifetime career opportunity”, and the solution to gridlock, inaction and corruption. of Congress was to change seats more frequently.

Senator Dianne Feinstein is pushed in a wheelchair as she leaves a Senate Judiciary Committee business hearing on Capitol Hill May 11.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Doug Bandow of the Cato Institute argued in 1995 that “to effectively end politics as a lifelong sinecure, thereby making congressional service a furlough from a productive career in the private sector, terms must be kept short “. As part of his contract with America, then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich supported 12-year service caps for the House and Senate, which would have been a six-term limit in the first and two terms in the second. The catch is that most jurists think a constitutional amendment is needed to impose such a dramatic limitation on congressional careers — and that amendment failed by 61 votes in a 1995 floor vote in the House. representatives.

Political scientists generally take a dim view of term limits. A few years ago, Seth Masket, a professor at the University of Denver, compiled this nifty list of research documenting how term limits have repeatedly failed to achieve their goals when applied to legislatures in the United States. States. According to the researchers, term limits “weaken legislatures (to the benefit of governors, parties, and lobbyists), increase polarization, and fail to achieve much of their good government goals.” For political scientists, term limits are almost the perfect example of hollow, albeit popular, reform with unintended negative consequences.

But most state-level legislative terms are extremely short, with most laws capping service at 6 or 8 years. They resemble the constitutional amendment introduced by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) earlier this year with three-term limits for the House and two-term limits for the Senate, which would replicate most of the problems that the political scientists have found with these measures. at the state level.

But what if the goal was not to use service limits to clean up toxic government, but rather to reverse the rise of gerontocracy? One of the problems in America today, in Congress and on the Supreme Court, is that older adults are crafting laws and policies that are out of step with the emerging beliefs and desires of a much-loved electorate. younger. Long before she became too ill to perform her duties, Feinstein’s behavior was emblematic of Beltway’s delusions of bipartisanship. Even after more than a decade of Republicans abusing the filibuster to delay legislation and routine appointments, Feinstein opposed reforming Senate rules so that simple majorities could rule, as they do in all other legislatures on Earth.

After election-eve committee hearings for Justice Amy Coney Barrett, produced by the GOP-led third nonsensical “rule” change for Supreme Court nominations in four years, Feinstein hugged Senator Lindsey Graham ( R-SC) and congratulated him on a job well done. A year and a half later, Barrett would provide the critical vote to overturn Roe vs. Wade and usher in reproductive tyranny in America. Feinstein isn’t just old, she’s out of touch, delusional, and committed to a kind of politics that the other side of the aisle abandoned two decades ago.

You don’t need to fire people from office every few years to prevent government by octogenarian, and you don’t need to pretend that it will solve a bunch of unrelated problems with government. But four-term limits in the Senate (and, say, 12-term limits in the House) would leave plenty of time to figure out how to draft bills without a lobbyist whispering in your ear, and that would help go a long way to ensuring that our representatives retire before they are unfit for duty and detached from reality. And grassroots reform with easy bipartisan appeal may be the only way to successfully change the constitution in a time of bitter polarization.

David Faris is an associate professor of political science at Roosevelt University and author of It’s Time to Fight Dirty: How Democrats Can Build a Lasting Majority in American Politics. His writings have appeared in The week, The Washington Post, The New Republic, Washington Monthly and more. You can find him on Twitter @davidmfaris.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.


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