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What does it mean to be ‘mentally unfit’ to hold public office?

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) questions witnesses during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. The hearing focused on the 2020 cyberattack that resulted in a series of data breaches within several agencies and departments in the U.S. federal government. Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Questions about the mental fitness of elected politicians seem to be popping up more and more—and not by accident. The current Congress is the oldest it’s been in more than 20 years. President Joe Biden is the oldest president to take office at 79. Before Biden, Donald Trump, elected in 2016 at 70 years of age, was the oldest. Both leaders have been subject to questioning about their fitness to hold office in the past because of, among other factors, their advanced ages.  

Northeastern Assistant Professor of Political Science Nicholas Beauchamp poses for a portrait. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

And the subject is back in the news after the San Francisco Chronicle reported last week that colleagues of Dianne Feinstein, the 88-year-old senator from California, believe her mental acuity is rapidly deteriorating. The lawmakers, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, revealed that Feinstein frequently suffers memory lapses to such a degree that they believe she is unable to fulfill her duties.  

Feinstein’s role in the Senate is significant, particularly if the Democrats maintain their majority, because it places her in the presidential line of succession, observers note

News@Northeastern spoke with Nick Beauchamp, assistant professor of political science, to gain a better understanding of what the implications are for governance, should Feinstein continue in her role amid calls for her to step aside. Beauchamp’s comments have been edited for brevity and clarity. 

What are we talking about when we talk about ‘mental fitness’ in the context of governance?

I have my own views of what would constitute sufficient mental acuity in the context of voting. Certainly if there was a recall election, a lot of people might feel, at this point, they would be better served by somebody who is in better health. But that’s different from whether you want to try to put these intuitions into some sort of official set of electoral rules for how to deal with these sorts of issues. It’s really hard to imagine any framework in which that would be possible while not also undermining the democratic process.

Speaking of which, are there mechanisms in place to remove a federal lawmaker from public office when it comes to their perceived mental abilities, or is this entirely left to the voting public?

Under normal circumstances, the party would take action on its own and basically strongarm the representative into stepping down for the good of the party. What’s remarkable about this particular time period is that the Democratic Party seems to have no leverage whatsoever over any senator. You know, if they can’t make [Senator] Joe Manchin vote for something that he promised them he would vote for (Biden’s Build Back Better bill), then they definitely won’t be able to make a senator retire when they don’t want to retire. Usually the party takes care of that sort of thing—they have the ability to coerce their members to do various things, at the very least by threatening to take them off of the decision-making bodies.

Does it make sense to screen or test for mental acuity, or would that create more problems?

The main problem is not, ‘Can we come up with a test,’ as any conceivable test would be contested. Unless that test was enshrined in some law that automatically triggered a process, the test itself wouldn’t tell us anything more than we already know, which is that she [Feinstein] has some issues that make it very difficult for her to perform even the basic tasks of the office. We already know that. The main question is how to deal with it within the electoral system that we already have. 

Could it also be that we’re approaching the end of a time period in American politics that will see more politicians of a certain generation retire and make way for a new generation of leaders?

I think that’s definitely true. On the other hand, the way you fix long-term problems is by taking action when the window of opportunity arises. If this is a systematic problem, you should act on it now. In addition to that, since average lifespans are getting longer, this is likely to be a recurring problem. Furthermore, even though it is a generational thing, it has gone on for five or 10 years already. I mean you can imagine Nancy Pelosi easily doing this for another 10 years, and as we’ve discussed, the entire top of the party apparatus is fairly old and getting older. You could have 20 more years of this with this exact same generation. So it’s worth thinking not necessarily in terms of what institutional changes can we make, but about how young and middle-age voters can influence some of these outcomes.

Based on the reporting surrounding Dianne Feinstein, do you believe she should step down?

Yes. It’s no question it would be better for the state and better for the party—and probably even better for herself, when there are some questions about how able she is to make judgments. For all of those reasons it seems clear.

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