In Frank Capra’s 1939 classic, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” a hapless governor upends his state’s political machine by appointing Jefferson Smith, the naive, all-American head of the Boy Rangers, to a vacancy in the United States Senate. Smith, played by Jimmy Stewart, wins the admiration of his colleagues when he successfully refutes false corruption charges against him through an impassioned filibuster.
Regrettably, a similar Hollywood ending to the recent Senate appointment saga proved elusive. Following Election Day, President Obama, Vice President Biden, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton all resigned their Senate seats. Nepotism, political power plays, and outright corruption sullied the search for their replacements. This should come as no surprise, since gubernatorial appointments to Senate seats are fundamentally undemocratic. They reward famous names, connections, and fundraising ability while denying the citizens of a state the chance to decide who their senator will be. Instead of relying on this outdated process for selecting interim senators, special elections should be held in the case of an unexpected death or resignation.
Governors often appoint members of political dynasties to Senate vacancies because of their name recognition and fundraising connections. This makes it easier for the newly minted senator to win a full term and puts the weight of an influential family behind the governor’s own reelection efforts. This consideration caused Governor David Paterson to initially favor Caroline Kennedy ’79 for New York’s open seat. Though Kennedy was widely panned for her inexperience and poor performance in press conferences, Paterson stood by the former first daughter, hoping to gain the Kennedy family’s support for his 2010 reelection bid.
In most states, the governor is allowed to appoint a new senator who does not belong to the same party as the senator leaving office. But an unexpected vacancy should not be an opportunity for a governor to change the Senate’s balance of power through a partisan political ploy. Though this situation has not arisen in recent years, it nearly occurred in 2006, when Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) suffered a major stroke. Had Sen. Johnson died, Mike Rounds, the Republican governor of South Dakota, would have appointed a Republican to the vacant seat, thereby delivering the majority in the Senate back to the GOP.
Worst of all, political appointments present a tempting opportunity for quid pro quo backroom deals, as demonstrated by Governor Rod Blagojevich’s attempted sale of Illinois’s open Senate seat. Though most governors would never engage in such brazen corruption, it takes just one light-fingered public official to tarnish the democratic process. Furthermore, even honest governors expect some sort of goodie in return for choosing a candidate, be it political support or fundraising help. As Governor Blagojevich crudely put it, “a Senate seat is a [expletive] valuable thing, you don’t just give it away for nothing.” Governor Paterson took this lesson to heart; his eventual choice of Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand was designed to shore up his support from upstate New York voters as the 2010 gubernatorial election approaches.
All of these serious conflicts of interest could be avoided if vacant Senate seats were filled through special elections. Upon a senator’s death or resignation, the governor would set a date for the election of the senator’s replacement. The election would be held within three months of the vacancy, and the winner would fill the Senate seat until the next regularly scheduled election. Special elections are used to fill open seats in the House of Representatives and many offices at the statewide level. They are practical and feasible, and would give a state’s electorate the power to make an interim appointment by itself.
Fortunately, Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) has recognized the wisdom of such a change. This week, he will introduce a constitutional amendment that would end gubernatorial appointments of interim senators, instead mandating the replacement of senators through special elections. Given the public outcry surrounding the Senate appointments in New York and Illinois, Sen. Feingold’s amendment has a reasonable chance of passing. It would fulfill the legacy of the 17th Amendment, which instituted the direct election of senators in 1913. Like its century-old forebearer, the proposed amendment furthers the voters’ ability to choose their leaders.
If “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” had been a true story, then Mr. Smith would never have gone to Washington at all. Instead, his state’s governor would probably have selected someone with strong ties to the local political machine, a Rolodex full of influential allies and wealthy donors, and a famous name. If the 28th Amendment is ratified, the public might indeed choose the career politician over the Mr. Smiths of the world to fill Senate vacancies. But, in this case, what matters is that the choice was made by the voters, not by an electorate of one.
Anthony P. Dedousis ’11, a Crimson editorial writer, is an economics concentrator in Leverett House.