Senatorial Discourtesy

It’s time we change the way we fill vacant US Senate seats. The selection processes used to fill the surprising number of Senate seats vacated during the early days of the Obama administration varied in their openness, their effectiveness and their outcome.

Illinois was the poster child for dysfunction, with a governor facing indictment for allegedly trying to sell the seat being vacated by the president-elect. Before being impeached, the governor appointed a respected former state attorney general who’d lost his last several statewide races.

In New York, Gov. David Paterson dragged out his decision, allowing Caroline Kennedy to twist before selecting an upstate congresswoman with a conservative voting record that is out of step with much of the state.

Delaware Democrats attempted to offer Joe Biden’s son his vacated seat—he turned it down—before appointing Biden’s former chief of staff as a placeholder. Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter appointed a relative unknown to Ken Salazar’s vacated seat and New Hampshire’s Democratic Gov. John Lynch has reportedly agreed to appoint a Republican to Republican Sen. Judd Gregg’s vacated seat as part of a deal that allowed Gregg to leave the Senate without handing another seat to the Democrats.

The run of difficulties are an unfortunate outgrowth of a process that leaves voters out in the cold, a loophole in a constitutional amendment that was designed to root out corruption and expand democracy.

The US Constitution originally assigned the selection of US senators to state legislatures as a way to “cement their tie with the national government, which would increase the chances for ratifying the Constitution,” according to the Senate Historical Office. “They also expected that senators elected by state legislatures would be able to concentrate on the business at hand without pressure from the populace.”

Problems cropped up rather quickly, however, with divided legislatures failing to fill seats in the years leading up to the Civil War and corruption tainting numerous other appointments. Reform efforts eventually resulted in the constitution being amended so that all US Senators stand for election.

The 17th Amendment, however, allowed “the governor or executive authority of each state, if authorized by that state’s legislature, to appoint a senator in the event of a vacancy, until a general election occurs” - unlike the method proscribed for filling vacant House seats, which is a special election.

John Nichols made this exact point in a blog post at on Caroline Kennedy.

“The speculation game will go into overdrive now that Kennedy has quit, and every prospect will be analyzed not with regard to his or her potential contributions to the Congress but with regard to his or her potential benefits for Paterson,” he wrote.

“That’s what is wrong with allowing senators to be appointed by governors. If political and personal considerations by governors may not always be Rod Blagojevich ugly, but they are always ugly.”

The simple fact, he says, is that the process “is doubly compromised,” as far as democracy is concerned: “Governors appoint senators with an eye toward helping themselves and their friends. And the appointed senators become frontrunners for vacant seats.” And the voters lose.

And yet, it continues. It was just three years ago that newly elected Gov. Jon Corzine appointed Bob Menendez to the Senate seat Corzine was vacating—a move designed to shore up the new governor’s standing in the Latino community and to take advantage of Menendez’s fundraising strengths. Basically, Corzine chose Menendez because he offered the best chance to keep the seat in the capital “D” column.

Menendez has done an admirable job in the Senate, but there is no denying that his appointment was about politics. Winning the appointment cleared the field for him in the New Jersey primary and kept the party together, which generally means a Democratic win these days in state-wide races.

What are the alternatives? We could let the state legislatures make the appointment, but that is no better than having a governor handle it.

The best solution, of course, is to hold a special election. But don’t expect the people in the state capitals to back that one—they like their power and they will offer an array of excuses for opposing it.

Hank Kalet is a poet and the online editor for The Princeton Packet newspaper group. E-mail; blog

From The Progressive Populist, March 1, 2009

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