Let voters fill vacant Senate seats

When a member of the U.S. House of Representatives dies, retires or takes another job, a special election is held in the district. Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin plans to introduce a constitutional amendment requiring special elections to fill vacant U.S. Senate seats as well:

“The controversies surrounding some of the recent gubernatorial appointments to vacant Senate seats make it painfully clear that such appointments are an anachronism that must end.  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 that the 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.”

Feingold explained the rationale for his “new effort to empower the people” in this Daily Kos diary.

Since the November election, four Democratic governors have appointed new U.S. senators. Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich is in particular disgrace for allegedly trying to profit personally from the appointment to fill Barack Obama’s seat. After a convoluted chain of events, Blagojevich was eventually able to get his choice, Roland Burris, seated in the U.S. Senate. (Jane Hamsher wrote the best piece I’ve seen on the farce: I want to play poker with Harry Reid.)

New York Governor David Paterson didn’t cover himself with glory either during the past two months. I agree with Chris Cillizza:

Is it possible that this process could have played out any more publicly or messily? It’s hard to imagine how. Paterson’s final pick — [Kirsten] Gillibrand — is entirely defensible but the way he handled everything that happened between when Clinton was nominated and today cloud that picture. Will Paterson ultimately be a winner for picking an Upstate woman to share the ticket with him in 2010? Maybe. But, today it’s hard to see him as anything other than a loser.

The other two Senate vacancies filled by governors stirred up less controversy nationwide, but are also problematic in some respects. Governor Ruth Ann Minner of Delaware replaced Joe Biden with picked a longtime Biden staffer who has no plans to run in 2010. I love competitive primaries, but in this case Minner was mainly trying to clear the path for Biden’s son Beau Biden, the attorney general of Delaware who could not be appointed to the Senate now because of a deployment in Iraq.

Colorado Governor Bill Ritter passed up various elected officials with extensive campaign experience and a clear position on the issues to appoint Michael Bennet, who had very little political experience and virtually no public record on any national issues. (Colorado pols were stunned by the choice.)

Discussing Feingold’s proposed amendment, John Deeth seems concerned mainly with the prospect of a governor appointing someone from the other political party to replace a retiring senator.

For me, the fact that all four Democratic governors appointed Democrats to the vacant U.S. Senate seats is immaterial.

I can’t tell you whether Burris, Gillibrand, Kaufman or Bennet will do a good job in the Senate for the next two years, but I can assure you that none of them would have earned the right to represent their states in a competitive Democratic primary. That alone is reason to support Feingold’s constitutional amendment.

The power of incumbency is immense and will create obstacles for other Democrats who may want to challenge Gillibrand or Bennet in 2010. (Burris may be out sooner than that if Blagojevich is removed from office, but whoever his successor appoints would have the same unjustified advantage in a potential 2010 primary in Illinois.)

Special elections can be held within a few months. Let voters decide who should represent them in the Senate.

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