Let’s always elect our Senators

U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold, having seen what a farce the gubernatorial-selection process for replacing Senators has been this year, proposes to do something about it:

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.

He goes into greater detail here.

I do not make this proposal lightly. In fact, I have opposed dozens of constitutional amendments during my time in the Senate, particularly those that would have interfered with the Bill of Rights. The Constitution should not be treated like a rough draft. Constitutional amendments should be considered only when a statutory remedy to a problem is not available, and when the impact of the issue at hand on the structure of our government, the safety, welfare, or freedoms of our citizens, or the survival of our democratic republic is so significant that an amendment is warranted. This is such a case.

The fact that the people of four states, comprising over 12 percent of the entire population of the country, will be represented for the next two years by someone they did not elect is contrary to the purpose of the 17th Amendment, which provides for the direct election of Senators. That is not to say that people appointed to Senate seats are not capable of serving, or will not do so honorably. I have no reason to question the fitness for office of any of the most recent appointees, and I look forward to working with them. But people who want to be a U.S. Senator should have to make their case to the people whom they want to represent, not just the occupant of the governor’s mansion. And the voters should choose them in the time-honored way that they choose the rest of the Congress of the United States.

This proposal is not simply a response to these latest cases. Those cases have simply confirmed my longstanding view that Senate appointments by state governors are an unfortunate relic of the time when state legislatures elected U.S. Senators. This system was replaced by direct elections by the citizens of each state following the ratification of the 17th Amendment in 1913. Direct election of Senators was championed by the great progressive Bob La Follette, who served as Wisconsin’s Governor and a U.S. Senator. Indeed, my state of Wisconsin is now one of only three states (Oregon and Massachusetts are the others) that require a special election to fill a Senate vacancy. But the vast majority of states still rely on the appointment system. Changing this system state by state would be a long and difficult process, particularly since Governors have the power to veto state statutes that would take this power away from them. We need to finish the job started by La Follette and other reformers nearly a century ago. Nobody can represent the people in the House of Representatives without the approval of the voters. The same should be true for the Senate.

I think this makes a lot of sense, and even if it never gets officially ratified, I think Feingold’s actions may spur more states to change their own processes. For what it’s worth, I think Texas’ process of an appointment followed by a special election on the next uniform election date is good enough for these purposes. I’d rather have someone in office for the few months it takes for the next election date to roll around than have only one Senator represent the state. But clearly a two-year appointment, however well-intentioned and however well-qualified the appointee may be, just doesn’t cut it any more. I hope this proposal gets plenty of traction.

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3 Responses to Let’s always elect our Senators

  1. RBearSAT says:

    I completely agree with this proposal. Feingold made the case in the Political Junkie section of Wednesday’s Talk of the Nation show on NPR. While appointments may be expeditious and much cheaper they are fraught with shenanigans by governors like Blagojevich.

  2. Baby Snooks says:

    It will be interesting to see how our two Bush lapdogs and “last of the corrupt Republicans” vote on it.

    Obviously if the governor appoints a replacement for Kay Bailout Huchison it won’t serve the Republican Party in Texas.

  3. BLong says:

    One thing to consider in this discussion is the benefit of appointments. This was discussed in the wake of 9/11 but I haven’t seen it lately. If, God forbid, the federal government was wiped out in a terrorist attack, the Senate could be quickly replaced with governor appointments who could quickly convene and elect a president pro tem of the Senate. Since that person is in the legal order of Presidential succession, he or she would become the next President. Without this legal avenue for a quick replacement of one House of Congress and the Chief Executive, there is no other rapid method of reconstituting the federal government in the Constitution. Elections would take months to organize at the exact time we would need a quick response.

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