The U.S. Senate is lately looking more and more like a “Saturday Night Live” parody of an eldercare facility. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., had a shingles infection in February that developed into encephalitis from which she has not fully recovered. (And at age 90, she is unlikely to.) Marked by inflammation and swelling of the brain, post-shingles encephalitis can leave patients with lasting memory or language problems, bouts of confusion, mood disorders, headaches, and difficulty walking. Indeed, Sen. Feinstein seems constantly disoriented.
On the other side of the aisle, while conversing with reporters, Sen. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., on two occasions recently had episodes of a kind of stupor that could be transient ischemic attacks (TIAs) or seizures. Moreover, he looks and sounds much older and frailer than he did prior to a fall and concussion in March.
But aside from such definable physical maladies that impair them, representatives and senators often squabble, posture, prevaricate, and say and do things that strain credulity. Is it any wonder, then, that Congress continues to rank dead-last in the most recent Gallup poll of public confidence in American institutions? Only 8% of those polled said they have a “Great deal/Quite a lot of confidence” in it.
It is no coincidence that insulting the intelligence of members of Congress is such a staple of American folk wisdom. “Suppose you were an idiot, and suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself,” quipped Mark Twain. “When Congress makes a joke it’s a law, and when they make a law, it’s a joke,” said Will Rogers.
Too often, though, the joke is on us. A friend of mine was seated at a banquet table with the family of then-Rep. Dan Glickman, a Kansas Democrat. Family members expressed relief that the congressman found a career in politics because none of them thought he was smart enough to enter the family business – processing scrap metal. (He later served for six years as U.S. Secretary of Agriculture.)
“When I was debating what became the 2008 Farm Bill,” Colorado Democratic Rep. John Salazar related, “I had a member of the Agriculture Committee actually ask me if chocolate milk really comes from brown cows. I asked if he was joking and he assured me he wasn’t.”
In the same category was the concern of Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., that stationing 8,000 U.S. military personnel on Guam would cause the island to “become so overly populated that it will tip over and capsize.”
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, once proclaimed that the U.S. Constitution was 400 years old. And as a member of the House Science Committee, Lee, during a visit to the Mars Pathfinder Operations Center, asked a NASA scientist whether the Pathfinder probe had photographed the flag that astronaut Neil Armstrong left behind in 1969. Armstrong had, of course, left the flag on the moon, not Mars. In 2010, Lee proclaimed on the House floor that “victory had been achieved” by the United States in the Vietnam War and that “today, we have two Vietnams: side-by-side, north and south, exchanging and working.” Lee was a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee when she made that statement.
Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., claimed during a hearing that an elementary school in Illinois received $5 billion in federal funding to teach “Critical Race Theory.” The reality is that under the American Rescue Plan Elementary and Secondary School Relief program the entire state of Illinois received approximately that amount, which was divided among 851 school districts. She was banned from Twitter during the height of the pandemic after she inaccurately posted that coronavirus vaccines were “failing” and called on regulators not to approve new shots.
Rep. Greene also gained notoriety for suggesting that space lasers may have concentrated the sun’s energy and created a solar beam that then caused California’s horrendous 2018 wildfires. (In any case, that’s not how lasers work.) Who would do such a thing? Greene speculated that the Rothschild banking firm is behind some sort of corporate cabal that engineered the space laser plot.
I once attended a conference at which Rep. Tom Bliley of Virginia — then Republican chairman of the powerful House Commerce Committee — spoke by teleconference. As he read from a prepared statement, he included the instructions — such as “pause for emphasis” — that had been inserted by his speechwriter. Where one line had been inadvertently duplicated, Bliley read it a second time.
I wrote in 2021 about the unmistakable signs of President Joe Biden’s dementia, which have only become more pronounced since then – mumbling, slurred speech, misspeaking, and exhibiting impaired judgment, such as twice comparing the recent catastrophic Maui wildfire to a small kitchen fire years ago at his Delaware home.
Psychiatrist Glenn Swogger and I wrote in 2016 about Donald Trump’s apparent narcissistic personality disorder. We listed the diagnostic symptoms of the disorder, and summarized people with it thusly: “self-referential, arrogant and grandiose, constantly telling themselves and others how superior they are; and they treat those lesser mortals who do not accept their declarations of superiority with contempt, attacking and belittling them.” Sound familiar?
Perhaps we should ask candidates and incumbents, including the president and vice president, to volunteer for periodic testing of intelligence, mental status, and psychopathology. After all, we often demand to know whether a candidate has recovered from open-heart surgery, cancer, or strokes, and many states require elderly drivers to get relicensed. Testing could answer speculations about mental fitness, one way or the other.
A mental-status exam offers an assessment of cognitive abilities, memory, and thought processes. It includes assessments of alertness, speech, behavior, awareness of environment, mood, affect, rationality of thought processes, appropriateness of thought content (presence of delusions, hallucinations, or phobias), memory, ability to perform simple calculations, judgment (“If you found a letter on the ground in front of a mailbox, what would you do with it?”), and higher reasoning, such as the ability to interpret proverbs (such as “a stitch in time saves nine”). A useful adjunct would be the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, or MMPI, a standardized test of personality traits and psychopathology commonly used by psychologists.
An intelligence test measures various parameters thought to correlate with academic or financial achievement. Every politician need not be a genius, but I’d like the ones who represent me to know that chocolate milk doesn’t come from brown cows.
“Congress consists of one-third, more or less, scoundrels; two-thirds, more or less, idiots; and three-thirds, more or less, poltroons,” H.L. Mencken observed. Testing might help us weed out a few idiots. Getting rid of the scoundrels and poltroons will have to wait.
Henry I. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is the Glenn Swogger Distinguished Fellow at the American Council on Science and Health. He was the founding director of the FDA’s Office of Biotechnology.