By Cheri Jacobus - 07/01/10 10:08 PM EDT
“Nobody would assail this pick ... It’s huge!”
— Former Illinois Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich on appointing Oprah Winfrey to Barack Obama’s vacated U.S. Senate seat.
These are just two of the gems from the tapes played at the Blagojevich corruption trial, pulling back the curtain on the behind-the-scenes bartering that occurs when democracy is thwarted by governors making appointments to fill vacated Senate seats, rather than holding elections.
Scott Brown, the first Republican U.S. senator elected from Massachusetts since 1972, made history, only because the people ultimately were “allowed” to democratically elect the successor to the late Sen. Edward Kennedy. But even Kennedy, prior to his death last year, implored lawmakers to ditch special-election laws so the governor, a Democrat, could make appointments instead.
With the death of West Virginia Sen. Robert Byrd (D), yet another appointment looms. Rather than allowing West Virginians to elect the man or woman of their choice, a member of a powerful political dynasty that has dominated West Virginia for generations, Gov. Joe Manchin (D), will appoint Byrd’s replacement, further making democracy an old-fashioned, rather quaint notion, no longer to be taken seriously.
With a half-dozen senators not democratically elected by the people of their state, (Colorado, New York, Florida, Illinois, Texas and West Virginia), it is fair and appropriate to scrutinize how they stumbled into their appointments, just as it is fair and appropriate to place elections under a microscope. Rarely has the argument for an appointment been so compelling that it should supercede democracy. Would anyone other than self-serving, Machiavellian politicians miss this increasingly ugly practice?
The Constitution requires vacated House and Senate seats to be filled by special elections but empowers state legislators to allow a governor to make an interim appointment to the Senate. It’s doubtful the 17th Amendment to the Constitution, which allows for such appointments, was meant to use such appointments as “placeholders” to advantage specific candidates or boost an unearned incumbency for the next election. Clearly, the Constitution is being abused, and the abuse warrants close examination and serious consideration of repeal of the 17th Amendment, preferably before we are treated to another Blagojevich-style perp-walk. If the Framers could see how the 17th has been bastardized, they would likely be sympathetic toward repeal.
West Virginians are fully capable of democratically electing a successor to the late Sen. Byrd to serve the remaining two and a half years of his term, and support for a 2010 special election is growing literally by the hour. The person need only meet the basic criteria for serving in the Senate: Be a U.S. citizen at least 30 years old and reside in the state. But since the West Virginia law is murky, leaving room for interpretation, rather than err on the side of democracy, the secretary of state, Natalie Tennant, ruled if you step way back and squint, you could somewhat-maybe-sorta see in the shadows a pinprick of rationalization for an appointment by the term-limited governor, who, by the way, plans to run for the seat when his term expires. The hand-picked choice by Manchin will obviously have to meet one additional criterion — don’t run for a second term, and make sure you pave the way for Manchin.
How politically convenient.
Jacobus, president of Capitol Strategies PR, has managed
congressional campaigns, worked on Capitol Hill and is an adjunct professor at George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management. She appears on CNN, MSNBC and FOX News as a GOP strategist.