Can Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) still do her job at 89 years old? The elderly lawmaker missed almost three months of work recovering from a bad case of the shingles, tying up nominations to the federal bench at the Senate Judiciary Committee and even causing Democrats to lose a critical vote on a resolution about one of President Biden’s new emissions regulations. Now she’s back, and still unable to work fulltime with questions about her mental competence swirling. And while no one can force Feinstein to retire, the ugly situation cries out for a reconsideration of senatorial term limits.
Feinstein was first elected in 1992 at the age of 59 and has gone on to win re-election five more times. Incumbent senators, especially in heavily Democratic or Republican states, are very difficult to beat, and voters seem willing to send them back to office well into their senescence. 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 elderly candidates to pollsters, they don’t seem to act on those worries on election day. As a consequence, the 117th Congress featured the oldest Senate in history, with members who remember a bygone age of collegiality that Republicans ended long ago.
There hasn’t been a serious push for congressional term limits in a generation. And if it seems like term limits have no friends, it’s partly because they are still indelibly associated with the 90s-era GOP, which co-opted the idea from Ross Perot’s populist 1992 run for the presidency. To Perot, there was nothing worse than seeing election to Congress as what he called “a lifetime career opportunity,” and the solution to Congressional deadlock, inaction, and corruption was to turn over the seats more frequently.
The Cato Institute’s Doug Bandow argued in 1995 that “To effectively end politics as a lifetime sinecure, thereby making congressional service a leave of absence from a productive, private-sector career, requires that terms be short.” As part of his Contract With America, then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich backed 12-year service caps for both the House and Senate, which would have amounted to a six-term limit in the former and two terms in the latter. The catch is that most legal scholars believe that a constitutional amendment is necessary to impose such a dramatic limitation on congressional careers—and that amendment fell short by 61 votes in a 1995 floor vote in the House of Representatives.
Political scientists have generally taken a dim view of term limits. A few years ago, University of Denver professor Seth Masket compiled this nifty list of research documenting how term limits have failed to achieve their goals over and over again when applied to state legislatures. According to 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 a hollow, if popular, reform with unintended negative consequences.
But most state-level legislative term limits are extremely short, with most statutes 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 political scientists have found with these measures at the state level.
But what if the goal wasn’t to use service limits to clean up toxic government but rather to reverse the rise of the gerontocracy? One of America’s problems today, in Congress and the Supreme Court, is that the elderly are making laws and policies that are out of sync with the emerging beliefs and desires of a much younger electorate. Long before she fell too ill to fulfill her duties, Feinstein’s behavior was emblematic of Beltway delusions about bipartisanship. Even after more than a decade of Republicans abusing the filibuster to hold up routine legislation and appointments, Feinstein opposed reforming Senate rules so that simple majorities can govern, as they do in every other legislature on Earth.
After the election-eve committee hearings for Justice Amy Coney Barrett, produced by the third preposterous GOP-led “rule” change for Supreme Court nominations in four years, Feinstein hugged Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and commended him for a job well done. A year and a half later, Barrett would provide the critical vote to overturn Roe v. 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 gave up on two decades ago.
You don’t need to toss people out of office every few years to prevent rule-by-octogenarian, and you don’t need to pretend it will fix a bunch of unrelated problems in 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 write bills without a lobbyist whispering in your ear, and it would go a long way toward ensuring that our representatives retire before they are unfit for office and detached from reality. And a popular reform with easy bipartisan appeal might be the only way to successfully amend the constitution at a time of bitter polarization.
David Faris is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Roosevelt University and the author of It’s Time to Fight Dirty: How Democrats Can Build a Lasting Majority in American Politics. His writing has appeared in The Week, The Washington Post, The New Republic, Washington Monthly and more. You can find him on Twitter @davidmfaris.
The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.