The Spectacle Blog

Governor’s Appointments

By on 1.25.09 | 2:45PM

Russ Feingold is a fan of ridding us of the maddening tendency of governors to appoint senators when seats are vacant:

In 1913, the Seventeenth Amendment to the Constitution gave the citizens of this country the power to finally elect their senators. They should have the same power in the case of unexpected mid term vacancies, so thatthe Senate is as responsive as possible to the will of the people. I plan to introduce a constitutional amendment this week to require special elections when a Senate seat is vacant, as the Constitution mandates for the House, and as my own state of Wisconsin already requires by statute. As the Chairman of the Constitution Subcommittee, I will hold a hearing on this important topic soon.

Brian Beutler thinks this is a good idea:

It's certainly a good (and probably popular) idea, and at the very least, it will raise consciousness of the issue at the state level, and perhaps we'll get there in piecemeal fashion.

Well, the Seventeenth Amendment wasn't about democratizing the Senate so much as it was about how tenuous and difficult it was to have state legislatures elect senators, particularly during unexpected vacancies. While Feingold tries to make it sound otherwise, the whole gubernatorial appointment process was something provided for in the Seventeenth Amendment, whereby states, if they so choose, could allow governors to make the appointments for the sake of expediency. To wit:

Clause 2. When vacancies happen in the representation of any State in the Senate, the executive authority of each State shall issue writs of election to fill such vacancies: Provided That the legislature of any State may empower the executive thereof to make temporary appointments until the people fill the vacancies by election as the legislature may direct.

And what do you know! States have varied in what they wanted, but they decided it for themselves. If the state legislature of Illinois feels they shouldn't endow their historically corrupt governor's office with the ability to make the appointments, they can make that decision themselves. We don't need a constitutional convention to figure this out.

In Indiana during the civil war, the state legislature was so divided, the senate seat remained vacant for two years. In other states, such elections were prone to corruption and bribery, and were hardly uniform. Even when laws were passed to make these procedures more uniform, the process was still inefficient. When I made this point today on Fox News, Eric Shawn argued that "this isn't the 19th century anymore." Well, yes, but that doesn't mean corruption and bribery have gone away, and come to think of it, that's the very problem we're dealing with when we're looking at this issue.

As always, I find it ironic when Senator Feingold talks about making things more responsive to the people, when his own "campaign finance reform" legislation has bound and gagged those very people from forming an association and advertising their position prior to an election. (Turns out, voters are special interests too.) Why is it that whenever he suggests making things more "responsive" to voters it always involves taking away voters' rights?

Let's not forget: If someone dies in office with one year left, the state will have to fund a special election, during which a number of political hopefuls will spend even more money trying to get elected. Then they'll have to go through it all over again one year later. This makes no sense. Special elections cost a great deal of money, as we've learned from the Democratic Party's unwillingness to do a revote for their Florida primary. 

The Senate was intended to be the deliberative body with more distance from "the people" than the House (exemplified by the tradition of secret holds, filibusters, 6 year terms, etc.). Senators were initially elected by state legislatures for this very purpose. And yet "the people" have plenty of control over how their senators come to office -- it's one thing that they can come together to do as a state. If they don't like governor appointed senators, they can change this for themselves. Russ Feingold can fix the Constitution elsewhere.

UPDATE: Part of the whole reason I wound up writing this post was Chad Pergram's interesting write-up on shadow senators in history. This speaks to the fact that "shadow senators" don't usually last very long in office. This may be because they have limited time to make an impact, or because they lack the political capital from a victorious election. Either way, good stuff.

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