Quote Card by Opinion.

In May, Senator-Elect John Fetterman, D-Pa., suffered a stroke that left some concerned about his ability to perform the duties of his office. While worries about Fetterman’s capacity to serve have existed since he won his primary, they arose primarily after he debated his Republican opponent, Dr. Mehmet Oz, in October. During the only debate in the Pennsylvania Senate race, Fetterman struggled with auditory processing and speaking, demonstrated by his halting performance. Despite a letter from Fetterman’s doctor stating that he would be fit to serve in the Senate, Pennsylvanians were concerned after witnessing his debate performance. 

As people who have not personally examined Fetterman, we cannot make a judgment about his fitness for office. It is hard to imagine that a health-care professional would lie to the American people and say that his patient was able to serve when he was not. Fetterman’s refusal to release his medical records, however, is concerning and raises a bigger question about politicians’ fitness to serve. Given their importance, both to voters and ability to perform the tasks of governmental office, politicians must share more about their cognitive health to ensure that voters make informed decisions about who they choose as their representatives. In this case, cognitive health and ability refer to the age-related declines in memory, speech and vocation that a study in The Journals of Gerontology found “may begin after midlife, but most often occurs at higher ages.”

Politicians facing health issues often do not reveal their health status, even when it conflicts with their ability to do their jobs. One prominent example of this is Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., whose performance in Senate hearings and other public events has caused concern.

Colleagues have reported that Feinstein struggles to remember names, policy topics and prior conversations when speaking with other lawmakers. While Feinstein is engaged with her job, as she is ready for meetings and interviews, she often forgets that those interactions have even taken place. Despite her apparent inability to do her job, though, Feinstein refuses to engage in conversations about retirement. And if Feinstein, who represents a solidly blue state, will not step down from her position, it is likely that other politicians will refuse to do so as well. It is important to note that Feinstein and some of her colleagues have denied these allegations.

It is easy to understand why politicians would be unwilling to retire from Congress for health issues. For one, being a member of Congress is a fantastic job. You get power and prestige and the status of being a member of Congress provides a gateway into other fields. Additionally, retiring from Congress because of a cognitive issue means admitting that one is experiencing decline, which is difficult to admit to family and friends, to say nothing of telling one’s constituents.

But it is imperative for members of Congress to acknowledge their duty to their constituents and the country. While there are many perks of being a legislator in Washington, it is also a difficult and demanding job. Members of Congress, particularly senators, are entrusted with sensitive information and make important decisions every day that impact the lives of Americans. 

Furthermore, senators and representatives alike are responsible for obtaining information through confirmation hearings and committee assignments. Confirmation hearings allow senators to review people who are nominated to serve in the executive and judicial branches, while select committees conduct investigations by reviewing information and interviewing witnesses and experts.

It is necessary that the people involved in these processes understand the questions they are asking and decisions they are making. The importance of this job and simply knowing what one is doing in it dictates the need for those members to be more proactive in informing the public of their cognitive status.

Fetterman and Feinstein provide different examples of the same issue regarding cognitive health. While Fetterman is likely cognitively capable of serving, his refusal to release his medical records raises the question that Feinstein’s poor cognitive status answers. If a member of Congress suffers from a brain injury or a decline in cognitive ability, it is their duty to report their medical history to the public. While it goes against their own interests for members of Congress to release their medical records when it could end their careers, it is imperative that they do so for the health of the country and out of respect to their constituents and the Constitution.

Lydia Storella is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at storella@umich.edu.