Chris Bowers lays out the case for a Constitutional Amendment that would eliminate the power of governors to fill Senate vacancies -- a process that has become rife with corruption and elitism.
The top political story over the past week has been a corruption case surrounding the appointment of a Senator to Barack Obama's vacant seat in Illinois. At the same time, a woman whose family lineage is her primary qualification to be a Senator has begun a "public" campaign to reach out to local political elites using Joe Lieberman's "fixer" in order to secure the seat. Earlier, a long-time aide to Vice-President-elect Joe Biden was picked to serve his Senate seat. In 2010, Biden's seat is expected to be filled by his son, Beau Biden. In the coming days, Representative John Salazar will be considered one of the leading candidates to be appointed to his brother's now vacant seat in Colorado.
There is an endemic problem of dynasties and elitism in our political process. The power of Governor's to appoint vacant Senate seats is one of the more egregious examples of this. The four examples we are looking at right now are not isolated incidents, either. Six years ago, former Alaska Governor Frank Murkowski appointed his daughter to fill his vacant Senate seat. Two years before that, when Mel Carnahan died in a plane crash, his wife, Jean Carnahan, served two years in the Senate to replace him. The previous year, Lincoln Chafee was appointed to serve when his father died unexpectedly.
The list goes on and on, of course. And to be clear, while I find it disheartening that the younger Biden will likely take his father's old seat in two years, at least they're doing it right in Delaware by appointing a caretaker Senator. He'll have every advantage in the world, but at least Beau will be elected to the seat.
But the Biden situation, that of the voter-driven monarchy, is unsolvable. If the voters want their monarchy, they'll get their monarchy. And we live in a world where the right name, the right checking account balance, and the right connections allow people to get ahead over those less fortunate. The money situation could be alleviated by the continued rise of people-powered fundraising (which propelled the outsider Obama past the establishment-funded Clinton) or perhaps public financing of elections. But the power of a name like "Biden" or "Bayh" or "Clinton" or "Bush" is priceless. So be it.
The problem here isn't that candidates trade off their name for electoral advantage, it's when they trade off that name for a political appointment, bypassing the trappings of democracy in order to be handed something by fiat. And as Chris notes, this problem isn't just one in New York. It's led to corruption in Illinois, nepotism in Alaska, Missouri, and Rhode Island.
Ultimately, the rich, powerful, and famous already have every advantage in life, so much so that the least they can do is make their case to the voters and be elected by popular acclaim. The notion that these elite should get something as important as a Senate seat because they have the governor on speed dial is deeply offensive.
Chris admits that the prospects of such a Constitutional amendment are minimal. But like Alaska, states should consider changing their laws to take this decision away from governors and giving it, just like we do in the House, to the voters.