Unlike Republicans, who have attempted in recent years to amend the Constitution over tangential issues like flag-burning, Democrats generally believe that constitutional amendments shouldn’t be taken lightly. But on rare, serious occasions, even the most sober Democrats can agree that the Constitution ought to be changed to correct gross flaws in our democracy.
In recent weeks, we’ve witnessed circus-like scenes in Illinois and New York that have made a mockery of the process of filling vacancies in the Senate. In Illinois, indicted Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) was captured on tape trying to sell President Obama’s former Senate seat. His eventual nominee, Roland Burris (D), now offers a daily reminder of the corrupting nature of the appointment process. Efforts by Senate Democrats to keep him out on nitpicky technicalities failed miserably.
In New York, Caroline Kennedy appeared to be the front-runner for Hillary Rodham Clinton’s former Senate seat after mounting a heavy-hitting PR effort targeting the governor and the state’s political elite, even as she bypassed the pesky voters she was aiming to represent. When she removed herself from the field at the eleventh hour, the drama underscored the undemocratic nature of the entire process. Had she run for the seat in a contested election, few would’ve batted an eye, given the history of her storied family.
Instead, the proceedings smacked of entitlement and privilege, more reflective of a monarchy than a democracy.
Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold (D), spurred into action by the Illinois and New York debacles, introduced a constitutional amendment this week requiring special elections to fill Senate vacancies. “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,” Feingold wrote on Daily Kos. “Nobody can represent the people in the House of Representatives without the approval of the voters. The same should be true for the Senate.”
It is indeed ironic that far less weighty House vacancies are filled by voters, while the world’s most exclusive club still clings to its undemocratic origins. It wasn’t until the 17th Amendment was passed in 1913 that voters chose their senators directly — before that, Senate seats were parceled out by state legislatures. Unfortunately, the 17th Amendment gave states the option to fill vacancies by gubernatorial appointment, which most still do.
Thirteen states have taken steps to remedy this inherently undemocratic, oftentimes nepotistic and potentially corrupting process. Among them is Alaska, where an angry electorate stripped the governor of appointment power by popular referendum in response to Frank Murkowski’s appointment of his daughter, Lisa (R), to his own Senate seat after he was elected governor. (The elder Murkowski lost his reelection bid in the primary to Sarah Palin in large part because of this issue.) Three states require the governor to appoint someone from the same party as the departed senator. The other 34 give their governor unfettered ability to appoint a replacement.
This is a fortuitous time to introduce this amendment. An analysis by Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight.com found that, based on the current configuration of senators and governors, 14 Republican senators would be replaced by Democratic governors, while 14 Democratic senators would be replaced by Republican governors. With neither party gaining an edge by passage, the amendment is objectively nonpartisan, an obvious advantage for a process that requires two-thirds of both congressional chambers as well as three-fourths of the states to become law.
Critics may object to the costs of special elections, but it’s a small price to pay for real democracy.
Moulitsas is founder and publisher of Daily Kos.