Sunday, December 14, 2008

Better Ways to Replace a Senator

A reader of the New York Times sent the following tongue-in-cheek comment about checking out Ebay for some gifts for Christmas and finding this:
Senator seats for sale. Only two remaining.

1. Illinois. Auction ends December 31, 2008. "Bidder must be over 35 years old and can pay in cash. Must be an Illinois resident although this might be worked out. No credit cards accepted."

2. New York. "Must be a New York resident. Very helpful if your last name is Kennedy. No prior experience required."
One of the unique things about this recent presidential election was that no matter the outcome, an incumbent US Senator was going to be elected. Surprisingly, this hasn’t happened since John F. Kennedy back in 1960. Governors have been dominating the presidential elections since then.

In addition to Barack Obama, Joe Biden, and (upon Senate confirmation) Hillary Clinton leaving the Senate for their new jobs, there is also talk of a future replacement for Ted Kennedy who is battling a malignant brain tumor.

But unlike executive positions like the US President who has a
long line of successors and even state governor positions that usually have a lieutenant governor in waiting as a replacement, legislative positions are usually filled by a governor who appoints the successor.

Especially when one person is in charge of appointing someone who can be as powerful as a US Senator, is it any wonder that it is an invitation to corruption as in the case of Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich who is accused of seeking bribes to influence who he would pick to fill President-elect Obama’s Senate seat? Maybe we need a better way to replace our legislators between elections — especially for a powerful post like the US Senate.

While the other Senate appointments may not be blatant crimes like in Illinois, they do raise some serious questions about our practice of appointing successors.

In New York, Caroline Kennedy is widely rumored to be a candidate for replacing Hillary Clinton. But there is
debate on whether she is the most qualified or if her main appeal is the Kennedy name.

In Delaware, Joe Biden's son Beau has been mentioned to replace him in the Senate after his son’s tour in Iraq is completed. To help accomplish this,
a cozy deal was set up where the governor will appoint a longtime senior adviser of Biden’s who has promised to serve only two years until 2010 when Beau can then run. Should someone have that much power in appointing ones successor — especially when it is a relative?

There is a similar question in Massachusetts where Ted Kennedy is said to want his wife Victoria to eventually be appointed for his Senate seat if he can no longer serve.

So are there better ways?
The idea behind appointments is that special elections can be both costly and time consuming. But if an election involving all of the state’s voters is not practical, why not have the elected state legislators handle the voting on their behalf? One proposal would be for the governor to select a replacement (preferably from the same party as the departing senator) and have that person go through a confirmation process by the state legislature.

Another proposal presently used by Hawaii, Utah and Wyoming require the governor to fill a vacancy in the US Senate by picking from a list of three candidates submitted by officials representing the party of the departing senator.

Eric Zorn of the Chicago Tribune offers an excellent background article
There are better ways to replace a senator for those wishing to explore this subject in more depth.

There is no perfect solution. Even these proposed solutions rely on some political wheeling and dealing. But they are a whole lot better than the system used by most states which gives the governor absolute power over US Senate appointments. And Governor Blagojevich if nothing else should remind us that
absolute power corrupts absolutely!

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