It’s Not Sexist or Ageist to Want Your Senator in the Senate

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) hasn’t been in the Senate since February.

Sick with a shingles infection, she was hospitalized in early March, then returned to her home in San Francisco to recuperate. Feinstein “remain[s] committed to the job,” she said in a statement Wednesday. But commitment doesn’t confirm judges, and Feinstein’s absence has stalled President Joe Biden’s judicial nominations. Two House Democrats, Reps. Ro Khanna (Calif.) and Dean Phillips (Minn.), have called on Feinstein to resign. (In February, Feinstein said she would leave office when her term ends, in December 2024.)

Their demand was met with swift rebuke from former House Speaker Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who told reporters Wednesday it is not just wrong but sexist to ask Feinstein to step down. “It’s interesting to me,” Pelosi said. “I don’t know what political agendas are at work that are going after Sen. Feinstein in that way. I’ve never seen them go after a man who was sick in the Senate in that way.” To that, Rep. Norma Torres (D-Calif.) added an ageism charge, tweeting that while men are honored as they age, when “women age or get sick, the men are quick to push them aside.”

Any discussion of sex and health, aging, or politics should probably begin with the stipulation that, yes, it’s different for women. But it’s also different for senators. This is a unique and powerful institution, and it’s not sexist or ageist to want your senator to be in the Senate. Pelosi is wrong on the facts, but—maybe more important in an era of geriatric lawmakers—she’s wrong on the principle, too.

Concerns have long been raised about Feinstein’s mental acuity, especially her short-term memory. But here it’s Pelosi who seems to have forgotten recent events, as just weeks ago it was an open question whether another hospitalized Democratic senator, Pennsylvania’s John Fetterman, should or would hold onto his seat amid serious health troubles including clinical depression and the aftershocks of a stroke he suffered on the campaign trail last year.

Though there’s ample precedent for age- and health-related resignations from Congress (not to mention the Supreme Court), Fetterman is expected to return to Washington next week after about two months’ absence. “In Senate time, which is a bit like geologic time,” his weeks away “will be the blink of an eye,” Fetterman’s chief of staff has argued. Many Democratic lawmakers, stuck with a 49-49 Senate while Feinstein and Fetterman are out, would likely beg to differ.

Though in some cases the Democratic majority can proceed as usual, the two-vote loss “is already creating headaches on the Senate floor as the chamber takes up privileged resolutions pushed by Republicans via the Congressional Review Act,” which “require only a simple majority to pass,” The Hill reported in March. “When you’re 51-49, every senator, every day is decisive,” Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the Senate majority whip, told the paper. “This is the reality of life in the Senate.”

And life in the Senate is unique. There is only one U.S. Senate, and there can only be 100 U.S. senators. Sometimes proxy voting is possible, and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) on Wednesday accepted Feinstein’s proposal that another Democratic senator temporarily serve in her place on the Judiciary Committee.

There are only two people representing 39 million residents of California in the Senate, and Feinstein is one of them. It’s not wrong to want both in Washington.

In the big picture, though, you can’t just hire a temp in the Senate. It’s not like other jobs. The inability of one senator—let alone two—to fulfill their duties for months on end matters quite a lot. It matters to their party, and it matters to their constituents.

There are only two people representing 39 million residents of California in the Senate, and Feinstein is one of them. It’s not wrong to want both in Washington. In fact, it’s extremely reasonable. It’s even reasonable to hold them to a higher standard of attendance than we would people in other, less consequential lines of work.

Acknowledging that reality isn’t inhumane. It isn’t inconsistent with supporting generous sick leave policies or taking mental health care seriously. On the contrary: If lawmakers are gravely ill, they should be freed of their workload entirely, not perpetually badgered about when they’ll be back on the Hill.

Nor need we dismiss the risk in ideas like a maximum age of service or forced resignations tied to health or cognitive testing. It’s easy to imagine how over-broad rules could be unfairly applied, including in sexist and ageist ways, or abused to political ends. However, some lesser measure, like a resignation process triggered by a certain number of missed floor votes or days in session, might be worth considering if we’re going to keep having a gerontocracy.

Yet it shouldn’t take a formal rule change for lawmakers to recognize, as Phillips said while pushing Feinstein to resign, when their physical limitations have made it “a dereliction of duty to remain” in office. Likewise, voters shouldn’t feel bad about wanting our senators to be up to the task we’ve given them.

At 89, Feinstein is already past the life expectancy for a San Franciscan woman of her wealth. It’s no surprise that she would want and need to be at home to rest and heal. Admitting her frailty isn’t a knock on her or her legacy: There’s no shame in age, illness, or mortality, which come for us all. But it is a shame when elected officials who can’t represent their constituents in Washington refuse to pass the baton to someone who can.

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