Monday, February 16, 2009

Fixing Senate Vacancies, Part One

By Marc Korman.

The four US Senate vacancies as a result of the election of President Obama have created lots of headlines. As a result, there are federal and state efforts for reforming the process whereby vacancies are filled by gubernatorial appointments. These reforms are necessary, but safeguards should be included as well. In Part 1, we will review some historical and recent Senate vacancy issues. In Part 2, we will examine the proposed reforms at the state and federal level. In Part 3, we will discuss some of the needed safeguards to ensure that Senate vacancy reform is done properly.

Since the 17th amendment established direct election of senators in 1913, 184 individuals have been appointed to the US Senate. Maryland is one of four states to have never had a Senate vacancy filled by appointment since the 17th amendment. Of the185 appointees, 63 did not seek reelection in the next election, excluding Ted Kaufman of Delaware who is not expected to seek election in his own right. 54 other appointees were defeated in their reelection efforts.

Some of these appointments have been monumental. For example, New Mexico appointee Dennis Chavez was the first Hispanic-American to win election in his own right, running as an incumbent. Georgia appointee Rebecca Felton was the first woman to serve in the Senate, though her appointment only lasted one day. Hattie Caraway of Arkansas became the second woman senator by appointment. She was then reelected the following year.

Several well known and impactful Senators also began their legislative careers as appointees, including: Former Vice President and 1984 Democratic nominee Walter Mondale (D-MN); former Senator President Pro Tempore and now disgraced Senator Ted Stevens (R-AK); Senator Arthur Vandenberg (R-MI), known for his 180 degree repositioning on American internationalism after World War II; Senator Harry Byrd (D-VA), a long serving and active segregationist; Senator Sam Ervin (D-NC), who led the Watergate investigation in the Senate; and Senator Howard Metzenbaum (D-OH), a well known progressive and former boss of County Councilman Roger Berliner.

The most recent Senate vacancies have been something of a train wreck. Although the appointees may yet go on to careers of distinction, the messy path that brought them to Washington will linger. In Illinois, the vacancy led to the impeachment of a Governor and days of uncertainty as to whether appointee Roland Burris would be seated. In Delaware, a Biden loyalist has been appointed to hold the seat until the Vice President’s son is prepared to run. In Colorado, appointee Michael Bennet was an official little known outside of Denver who has never run for elective office. Finally, the soap opera of the New York senate vacancy left much to be desired.

These are not the first questionable US Senate appointments. In 2002, Senator Frank Murkowski was elected Alaska’s governor and had the opportunity to fill his own seat. He did so by appointing his daughter, current Senator Lisa Murkowski. That led to outcry in the state and a new statute requiring special elections for US Senate vacancies. When John F. Kennedy moved to the White House in 1961, Kennedy loyalist Benjamin Smith was appointed to JFK’s former Senate seat as a placeholder until younger brother Ted Kennedy was constitutionally old enough to run.

In Part 2, we will look at the state and federal efforts to clean up the Senate appointment process.