We’ve Found the One Man Feingold Won’t Call Out (Apparently)
Ninety-six years ago, voters won the constitutional right to choose their own senators. But in all but four states, the governor decides who will fill the seat after a vacancy. Now, there’s a drive in Congress for a constitutional amendment requiring a special election to fill a Senate vacancy.
The push comes in the wake of several recent Senate shake-ups — most prominently, the controversy surrounding President Obama’s vacant Senate seat.
In December, federal authorities arrested Rod Blagojevich, then-governor of Illinois, and accused him of trying to sell Obama’s former Senate seat to the highest bidder. At a news conference the same day, Dick Durbin, Illinois’ other senator, declared there was only one way out: “I think the Illinois General Assembly should enact a law as quickly as possible calling for a special election.”
Here’s why a new law would be needed: The assembly, like 45 other state legislatures, long ago gave its governor the exclusive power to fill Senate vacancies. The option to bestow such power is part of the 17th Amendment, the same one that provides for the direct election of senators.
Illinois lawmakers did not pass a special election law, but they did impeach Blagojevich — though not before he appointed Roland Burris to the Senate. Burris is now struggling to hang on to his new job; earlier this week, he pleaded in Chicago for understanding after admitting he tried to raise money for Blagojevich while seeking the Senate appointment.
“I ask you … to stop the rush to judgment,” he said. “You know the real Roland. I’ve done nothing wrong, and I have absolutely nothing to hide.”
Wisconsin Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold says “enough is enough.” He wants every state to do as Wisconsin has done: fill Senate vacancies only by special election.
“It’s time to put the power to replace senators where it belongs — with the people,” he says. “That’s the way it’s been for the House since the Constitution was written, and I don’t think the Senate should be any different.”
To make special elections the law of the land, Feingold is proposing what would be the Constitution’s 28th Amendment. Joining him are several prominent House Republicans, including the former chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Wisconsin’s James Sensenbrenner.
“Elected senators have a mandate from the people,” Sensenbrenner says. “Appointed senators have a mandate from one person: the governor. And in terms of effective representation in the Senate, you’ve got a lot more clout if you were sent there by the people, rather than having a friend who happened to be governor at the time.”
It appears, the news yesterday of Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA) asking the Massachuestts State Legislature to change his states laws (currently now a special election after Democratic worries in 2004 Republican Governor Mitt Romney was going to replace Sen. John Kerry with a member of the GOP if he was elected President) from a special election back to a governor’s replacement pick has seen no such statement from Feingold.
Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, terminally ill with brain cancer, has asked state legislative leaders to change the law and let Gov. Deval Patrick appoint a temporary replacement upon the senator’s death.
Under current law, the seat would be vacant until a special election could be held 145 to 160 days later. But Senator Kennedy, a 77-year-old Democrat, wrote in a letter to the governor and leaders of the legislature that he wanted Massachusetts to have full representation in the Senate during that five-month period.
Until 2004, state law called for the governor to appoint a temporary replacement if a Senate seat became vacant. But when Senator John Kerry, a Democrat, was running for president that year, the Democratic-controlled state legislature wanted to deny the governor at the time — Mitt Romney, a Republican — the power to name a successor if Mr. Kerry won.
In his letter, Mr. Kennedy wrote that he supported the 2004 law, but he added, “I also believe it is vital for this Commonwealth to have two voices speaking for the needs of its citizens and two votes in the Senate during the approximately five months between a vacancy and an election.”
Mr. Kennedy also asked that Mr. Patrick “obtain, as a condition of appointment of the interim Senator, an explicit personal commitment not to become a candidate in the special election.”
Anyone else think of the name “Benjamin A. Smith” when Kennedy asked for the place-holder specifically not become a candidate in the special election? Historical buffs will remember him as JFK’s roommate at Harvard he had as his successor to his Senate seat when he was elected President in 1960. Ted, then 28 or 29, was too young to serve in the Senate and had to wait for the 1962 Special Election to win the seat outright.
History has reduced Smith to the butt of jokes as “the Kennedy Brothers’ Seat-Warmer.”
Kennedy is no doubt creating another scenario in which the Massachusetts Senate seat will have another “Seat-Warmer” until the Kennedy-family approved candidate — likely Ted’s own wife Victoria — can win the seat in the 2010 or 2012 election.
The reason why I raise this question is that Feingold is notorious for not letting his pet-projects die, let alone get railroaded in the process. Is Russ Feingold — a notorious caucus bickerer — going to just let Ted Kennedy’s own personal demands that his Senate seat become some sort of “family heirloom” only he can pick and choose should fill it?
Who knows, but this was one heck of a floor speech by Feingold in February. Hate to see it go to waste.