A brief history of consequential deaths in Congress | ET REALITY


Dianne Feinstein, who died Thursday at age 90, was the first senator to die in office since John McCain in 2018.

But since the first Congress convened in 1789, deaths in office have been a fairly regular occurrence. “If you look back in history, nearly one in 10 members of Congress have done it,” Jane L. Campbell, president of the U.S. Capitol Historical Society, told me in a previous article on the topic.

In many cases, lawmakers are replaced by a member of the same party, often in a special election or when a governor names a replacement, as will be the case with Feinstein, a California Democrat. But some deaths of congressmen could have changed the course of legislative history. There are three notable examples from the last century alone, including one during Barack Obama’s presidency.

In the 1930 midterm elections, Republicans narrowly won control of the House. But 14 elected representatives died before Congress met 13 months laterand voter angst over the Depression helped Democrats pick up enough seats in special elections to claim the majority. They used it for approve economic relief and higher taxes on the rich – policies that President Herbert Hoover opposed and that would come to animate the presidency of his successor, Franklin D. Roosevelt. “They laid the foundation for the New Deal,” Andrew E. Busch, a government professor at Claremont McKenna College, told me.

In 1954, Senate Republicans were trying to make pro-business changes to a federal law that already restricted the power of unions. But the deaths of three Republican senators pushed their party below the majority, effectively shifting control of the Senate to Democrats for a month. Lyndon B. Johnson, the Democratic leader at the time, saw an opportunity. He used his party’s numerical advantage to send the amendments back to the committee, effectively nullifying them.

“Lyndon Johnson was just a master tactician as a legislator and also as a president,” said Christian Grose, a political scientist at the University of Southern California. who has studied the episode. “I think part of what he learned happened during that period when he was technically the minority leader but he had more votes.”

More recently, the 2009 death of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy from brain cancer (and Scott Brown’s surprise victory that handed the Massachusetts seat to Republicans) cost Senate Democrats their filibuster-proof majority. That forced House Democrats to abandon their more progressive version of the Affordable Care Act and instead pass a stingier bill that had already passed the Senate, which eventually became law.

Feinstein’s death has temporarily reduced the Democratic majority in the Senate, leaving the party in control of the chamber but with less room for error. Moderates like Joe Manchin III and Kyrsten Sinema, who sometimes vote with Republicans, will have more power to sink Democratic priorities until Feinstein’s replacement is settled.

Earlier this year, Ms. Feinstein was away from the Senate for more than two months while she recovered from shingles. She requested that a Democratic colleague temporarily fill her seat on the Judiciary Committee, which was deadlocked in her absence and she was unable to advance some of President Biden’s nominees to serve on the federal courts. But Republicans denied Feinstein’s request and some liberals called for her to resign from the Senate.

However, Feinstein’s temporary absence did not significantly slow the pace at which the Senate confirmed Biden’s judicial nominees. And after her death, top Republicans said they would not stop Democrats from replacing her on the Judiciary Committee.

Feinstein’s death may not end up affecting her party’s political fortunes because Governor Gavin Newsom of California, a fellow Democrat, will be able to name her replacement. But seven other Democratic senators and five Senate Republicans represent states led by a governor from the opposite party with the power to appoint whomever he chooses. That means a future vacancy could, in theory, change the partisan makeup of the Senate.

Some states have taken preventive measures. Several demand that the governor appoint someone from the same party as outgoing senator. In 2021, Senator Mitch McConnell, now 81 years old and having had several health problems this year, persuaded Kentucky’s Republican-controlled legislature to require the governor, currently a Democrat, to replace McConnell with a fellow Republican. if your seat becomes vacant.

Medical advances and increased life expectancy have helped reduce deaths in Congress in recent decades. Deaths among sitting senators have become even rarer. As a group, members of Congress are richer, better educated and have better access to high-quality health care than the general population, factors that correlate with longer life expectancy.

Perhaps as a result, many legislators are choosing to remain in office well into old age. Members of both the House and Senate have trended older in recent decades, and the Senate’s average age surpassed 65 this year. according to FiveThirtyEight analysis. The share of lawmakers in their 70s soared to a record 23 percent last year. according to data published by Insider. Nineteen current lawmakers, including Sen. Chuck Grassley (90), Sen. Bernie Sanders (82), and Rep. Nancy Pelosi (83), are even older. Until her death, Ms. Feinstein was the oldest sitting member of Congress.

In polls, many voters say that favor Age limits for elected officials or express anxiety on older leaders like Biden (80) and former President Donald J. Trump (77).

The country could see more congressional deaths as lawmakers continue to serve into old age, said William J. Kole, former Associated Press journalist and author of “The Big 100: The New World of Super Aging.”

“The electorate is really concerned about the prospects of us becoming a full-fledged gerontocracy,” he said. “If we’re not already.”

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