.May 5, 2023

A collage of a portrait of Dianne Feinstein peeking through a torn photograph of an empty Senate chamber. A single brush stroke in yellow is drawn across the photograph of the chamber.
Credit…Illustration by Rebecca Chew/The New York Times

By The Editorial Board

The editorial board is a group of opinion journalists whose views are informed by expertise, research, debate and certain longstanding values. It is separate from the newsroom.


Without Senator Dianne Feinstein, there might never have been an assault weapons ban in 1994. Or the Gun-Free Schools Act of 1994. Or the revelatory report on the C.I.A.’s torture program in 2014. She has had a distinguished career in the U.S. Senate, but her infirmities and illness now force her — and Senate leaders like Charles Schumer — to make a painful choice.

At age 89, Ms. Feinstein is now the Senate’s oldest member, and health issues have kept her out of Washington and the Senate chamber for more than two months, at a time when vital legislation and judicial nominations are hanging on a knife’s edge. If she cannot fulfill her obligations to the Senate and to her constituents, she should resign and turn over her responsibilities to an appointed successor. If she is unable to reach that decision on her own, Mr. Schumer, the majority leader, and other Democratic senators should make it clear to her and the public how important it is that she do so.

Senators play many roles in shaping legislation and policy, but they have one primary and inescapable duty: They must show up in person to vote in the chamber. If they cannot do that for extended periods, they are depriving their constituents — and California has 39 million of them — of a voice and of fundamental representation. In six elections, voters have sent Ms. Feinstein to Washington on a Democratic platform, and in the current term of Congress, that agenda consists of confirming judges nominated by the Biden administration and preserving a majority for important legislation in a closely divided Senate. Her absence is a failure that deprives American voters of full representation on legislation and appointments that will affect them for decades to come.

Without Ms. Feinstein’s presence at proceedings of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Democrats have lacked a majority there and struggled at times to advance nominations to the floor. (Proxy voting is allowed in the committee, but a proxy cannot be the decisive vote if the committee is otherwise evenly divided, as it often is.) Currently, seven of President Biden’s judicial nominees are awaiting a vote in the committee, at a time when 9 percent of district and appellate court seats remain vacant. Ms. Feinstein offered to step away from the committee, but Republican senators blocked any effort at appointing a temporary replacement. Democrats are also likely to need all 51 members of their caucus if there is a vote to raise the debt ceiling, along with at least nine Republicans.

Ms. Feinstein’s difficulties with advancing age are serious and long predate her current illness. Last year, her hometown newspaper, The San Francisco Chronicle, reported that her memory has so deteriorated that she can no longer fulfill her job duties. She cannot keep up with conversations, her colleagues said; she doesn’t seem to fully recognize other senators and relies almost entirely on staff members, to a much greater extent than other senators do. She’s announced that she will not run for re-election in 2024, but until then, her staff is, in effect, assuming the authority entrusted to her by California’s voters.

It’s a deeply saddening situation, but even the most dedicated public servants cannot serve forever, and they may be the last to realize or act upon their incapacity. Fitness for elective office can be measured in different ways. Some people are unfit on the day they first set foot in Congress, because of their character or ethical failings; others do stellar work for decades but gradually lose their effectiveness. In each case, constituents are the losers, and American institutions should be strong enough to have mechanisms to protect voters from a lack of representation.

In the Senate, that task falls to Mr. Schumer and his leadership colleagues. Ms. Feinstein has put them in a difficult position by saying she wants to come back, and plans to do so, but without ever giving an indication of when that will be. Mr. Schumer said Wednesday that he hoped she would be back next week. But Ms. Feinstein’s office has not confirmed that, and there is no clear timeline for her return, the only way for voters to gauge her effectiveness. Under the circumstances, Mr. Schumer should turn up the public pressure on her to return or resign, setting aside the antique Senate gentility that can hobble common-sense decision making there.

Putting any kind of public pressure on Ms. Feinstein has been criticized by the former House speaker Nancy Pelosi and others as sexist. “I’ve never seen them go after a man who was sick in the Senate in that way,” Ms. Pelosi said last month. It’s true that the Senate, which has always been entirely or mostly male, has experienced long absences by some of its male members. In the 1940s, Senator Carter Glass of Virginia was absent for four years because of heart trouble. Senator Karl Mundt of South Dakota had a stroke in 1969 and never really came back in the following three years. In 2001, when he was 98, Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina was wheeled to the Senate floor to cast votes, despite widespread concern about his mental fitness. In all of those cases, as with Ms. Feinstein, the senators ignored concerns about their capacity and pleas from their colleagues as long as they could.

This Senate tradition should have been discarded long ago. Senate seats are not lifetime sinecures, and if members can’t effectively represent their constituents or work for the benefit of their country, they should not hesitate to turn the job over to someone who can. Ms. Feinstein owes California a responsible decision.

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