Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Russ Feingold Strikes Again

So, looking at the unseemly spectacle involved in replacing the various senators who have resigned to take posts in the new Obama administration, Russ Feingold suggests that it's time we give up on letting governors appoint senators when a seat becomes vacant. For the first century or so of this country, we didn't get to elect senators; the state legislatures did that for us. That had come to seem so patently undemocratic that they changed the process to allow for direct election, just as with a state's governor, with the 17th Amendment (1913) -- a measure which was so popular that it was ratified in only a year. Now, almost a century after that, Feingold suggests it's time to follow through and make replacement senators be chosen by special elections rather than making it a really nice executive perk of the governor, as is the case in most states.

I've always rather liked the idea of appointments to fill out terms myself -- we've gotten some interesting people in office that way who would otherwise never have gotten in, like Hattie Carraway. But recently Paterson's incompetence, and Blagovich's corruption, has so tainted the process that I think Feingold's suggestion at least needs to be seriously considered, and I don't have much doubt that this is the way we'll ultimately go, whether now or later in piecemeal fashion. Nate Silver at argues that while special elections are expensive, what better way is there to spend money in a democracy than in setting up and running a free and fair election?

here's the link:


current cup of tea: licorice


David Bratman said...

Governors only have the right to appoint senators if the legislature gives it to them. In a couple of states abuse of the power has resulted in the legislature taking it away. So there's no need for a constitutional amendment: if the problem is serious enough, it will solve itself.

I don't think it really is yet. As you noted, a few people of note have entered the Senate via the appointment process, some of whom might never have gotten there by election. Among the appointees are such people as Walter Mondale and George Mitchell.

John D. Rateliff said...

You may be right. The old tradition was to appoint the spouse of the deceased senator or, more recently, for the governor to appoint himself (or resign in favor of his lt. gov., with the understanding that he would then do the appointing). It came into play mainly when someone died in office, so we didn't get four or five resignations at more or less the same time, as we're seeing now.

Perhaps the better fix would be not to change the appointment power but to stop raiding the Senate to fill cabinets. There are plenty of people out there with the talent to fill the cabinet posts: stop sacrificing Senate seniority, chairmanships, and 'safe seats' for big names.