Feinstein, back in the Senate, relies heavily on staff to operate

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-California) returns to Capitol Hill in Washington on May 10, 2023. (Kenny Holston/The New York Times)

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-California) returns to Capitol Hill in Washington on May 10, 2023. (Kenny Holston/The New York Times)

WASHINGTON — When Senator Dianne Feinstein walked into a courtroom this month to claim her seat on the Senate Judiciary Committee after a month-long absence, she was accompanied by a phalanx of aides.

Two staff members installed the 89-year-old California Democrat in a chair on the dais as the assembled senators greeted their ailing colleague with a round of applause. When Feinstein spoke — during a vote on one of President Joe Biden’s many judicial nominees whose endorsement had awaited her return — she appeared to be reading a piece of paper given to her by a woman. assistant sitting behind her.

“I request to be recorded as voting in person on the three candidates considered earlier, Mr. President, and I am voting yes now,” she said.

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The aide knelt beside her and whispered in her ear between votes – repeatedly popping up from her seat to chat with the senator, at one point cleaning up the paper Feinstein had been reading and presenting him with a file that seemed to contain background information. on the nominees.

The scene was typical of Feinstein’s day-to-day existence on Capitol Hill, where she’s surrounded by a retinue of staffers who not only serve the roles of typical Congressional aides — advising on policy, keeping tabs on the calendar, writing statements and speeches – but also as the de facto companions of a senator whose age, fragile health and memory problems prevent her from functioning alone.

Their roles have come under greater scrutiny as a number of Democrats and many of Feinstein’s voters worry about her refusal to relinquish a position she’s not capable of filling without an addiction. heavy and constant towards his helpers.

They push her wheelchair, remind her how and when she should vote, and step in to explain what happens when she gets confused. They stay with her in the locker room just off the Senate floor, where Feinstein made a habit of waiting his turn to vote, then appearing at the door to register his “yes” or “no” from the edge. room exterior.

All senators rely heavily on staff. But for years, Feinstein’s memory problems meant she needed far more support than other senators. Briefing on the news of the day requires longer sessions and more background information.

At times, she expressed confusion about the basics of how the Senate works. When Vice President Kamala Harris was presiding over the chamber last year in one of several instances where she was called to vote for the tiebreaker, Feinstein expressed confusion, according to a person who witnessed the scene, asking her colleagues: “What is she doing here?” Staff members were overheard explaining to her that she cannot leave yet as there are more votes to come.

Since returning to work on a limited schedule as she recovers from shingles and multiple serious complications, Feinstein’s staff have made sure she is never alone and is heavily protected. Capitol police and the Senate Sergeant-at-Arms went to great lengths to keep Feinstein away from photographers and reporters, the Los Angeles Times reported, helping to create a bubble around her as the staff interfere on his behalf.

Reporters were sometimes asked to keep a respectful distance from the senator, while aides tried to hide her from photographers.

It’s a delicate task for Feinstein’s staff, many of whom go back decades with her. They struggle to balance their jobs as public servants with their responsibilities to a diminished legislator who remains tasked with representing California’s 40 million people and who sometimes makes public statements that aren’t true.

After The New York Times revealed this month that Feinstein had encephalitis caused by shingles, a condition that had not been disclosed by her office, she denied the story, telling a CNN reporter who managed to approach her at the Capitol that she had simply had “bad flu”. Her spokesman, Adam Russell, later released a statement correcting her and confirming that the senator had encephalitis, which he said had “resolved” in March. Russell said she also has Ramsay Hunt syndrome, which can cause facial paralysis.

“They have a responsibility to give her brutally honest advice and then respect her wishes because she – not them – was elected,” said David Axelrod, former senior adviser to former President Barack Obama. “And they have an obligation to help him meet his own responsibilities to his state and the office.”

Staffers in Feinstein’s office say they engage in candid conversations with her about her future and don’t shield her from reality. So far she has insisted she is able to work and does not plan to quit until her term ends in 2025; she is not seeking re-election.

Her aides release no statement without Feinstein’s approval and describe her as willful even in her diminished state.

“All senators are highly dependent on staff to get the job done, especially a senator who represents 40 million people,” said his chief of staff, James Sauls. “While the staff advises her, she is ultimately the one who decides how best to act for the people of California.”

Still, Feinstein’s staff have come under fire from leftist critics who have been angered by his refusal to resign immediately and who argue his aides are complicit in helping to prop up a lawmaker who should no longer serve.

This month, Intercept reporter Ken Klippenstein tweeted the names, salaries, and other details of senior and lower-level staff in Feinstein’s office, writing that it was “time to name and shame Dianne Feinstein’s staff, who should be blacklisted from politics forever because they care so little about their country that they refuse to step down.

The posts were condemned by many left and right, and eventually deleted.

For now, his aides must figure out how to run Feinstein’s office as well as it can in the absence of a fully functioning senator. They did it, some say, by building on the senator’s three decades of political positions and the explicit systems she put in place long ago that were designed to make his efficient office — and which earned him a reputation for leading one of Capitol Hill’s most demanding workplaces.

Feinstein, who aides say has never taken a real vacation, expects the same level of commitment to the work she puts into it.

Staff meetings have hierarchical seating assignments. All assistants must write what is called a “weekly”, a note detailing their work for the week for the senator to review.

Information is transmitted to Feinstein in color-coded folders. A format is in place for submitting voting recommendations. And the office has an extensive library of letters to tap into to respond to some 5 million pieces of voter correspondence it receives each year.

In recent months, decades-old systems have been helping the office function without her, as Feinstein’s press kit was delivered to her, filled with dismal clips about his health, editorials calling for his resignation and polls showing that most California voters want Feinstein to resign.

Feinstein recently lost some of the staff members who know her and her systems best. David Grannis, his longtime chief of staff, left the office earlier this year as part of a long-planned move. Its veteran communications director, Tom Mentzer, died in February.

Yet many of her most senior political staffers have been with her for more than a decade and feel a strong sense of loyalty to Feinstein, and equally committed to their matters of expertise. They continue their work, communicating with the senator by telephone, memos and fax. (Yes, Feinstein’s office still faxes.)

Since returning to Washington, Feinstein has missed six votes and has not attended any committee hearings or caucus lunches. Yet his staff members feel the office must continue to function. And the reality of the Senate is that even with a sidelined senator, an office can function fairly normally.

Case workers handle matters that would never have reached the level of a senator: passport renewal applications, assistance to those applying for U.S. citizenship, assistance to those applying to a military service academy or those requesting a waiver of a federal administrative decision.

Staffers in Washington and California also review funding requests under a long-standing system, which now helps them expedite the process that ultimately requires Feinstein’s approval for funding, even if it isn’t. there.

And Feinstein has always been formal, preferring to communicate with his Senate colleagues through letters or memos rather than face to face.

Since returning, Feinstein has co-sponsored legislation to support the development of facilities that use wood from hazardous wildfire fuel reduction projects. She also co-sponsored legislation with Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., that would allow independent music creators to deduct all of their production expenses in the year they are incurred, rather than down the line.

Yet his aides took on an outsized role that Feinstein might have found hard to swallow.

“You can’t let the staff direct you,” she told her biographer, Jerry Roberts, in the 1990s. “The person in charge has to be the guidance post.”

circa 2023 The New York Times Society

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