With Rod Blagojevich on trial for allegedly trying to sell a Senate seat, there is a “critical need to reconsider the wisdom of our current system, which gives a sitting governor the sole power to fill a U.S. Senate vacancy without oversight,” Shaw wrote. “We should, at the very least, consider Illinois Senate confirmation of the governor’s nomination, or the empowerment of a legislative committee or independent commission to propose three candidates to the governor, who would then be able to pick one.”
In most states, the governor is the only voice in appointing a new senator, who then serves until the next general election. In Hawaii, Utah and Wyoming, the party that holds a Senate seat submits three names to the governor, who chooses one. Several other states allow the governor to name a temporary appointment, who serves until a special election.
But even in those states, political considerations end up trumping the public interest. Take Massachusetts.
In 2004, the state legislature passed a law stripping the governor of his power to appoint a new senator, specifically to prevent Mitt Romney from replacing John Kerry with a Republican, if Kerry was elected president. In 2009, after Sen. Edward Kennedy died, the legislature changed its mind, and decided the governor should be able to appoint senators after all. By then, the governor was a Democrat, and Democrats needed all the votes they could muster to pass President Obama’s health care plan.
After West Virginia Sen. Robert Byrd died last month, Gov. Joe Manchin had the option of calling a special election this November, or filling the seat until Byrd’s term expired in 2012. Manchin was eager to run for the Senate himself, so he pushed through a bill calling for an election this year. To fill the seat in the meantime, Manchin appointed a young lawyer who promised not to challenge him.
If shenanigans like that go on in Boston and Charleston, imagine what could happen in Springfield.
Even if Illinois adopts a more democratic method of replacing senators, governors and legislators will find ways to game the process. The best solution is a federal law or a constitutional amendment requiring special elections for the Senate. Then our governors will only be able to sell appointments to the Tollway Authority and the pension board. Those just aren't as golden as a Senate seat.
Giving a governor exclusive power to replace a senator is a vestige of the days when senators were appointed by state legislatures, rather than elected by voters. The 17th Amendment gave the people power to elect their own senators, but it did nothing to change the method of filling vacancies in the Senate.
Time for a change, no?