Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Special Elections Should Trump Special Exceptions

Special Elections Should Trump Special Exceptions
Commentary by Sanford D. Horn
February 4, 2009

Hold the presses – I found something on which I agree with Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI). Following the Rod Blagojevich impeachment/Roland Burris appointment soap opera and the seemingly endless will she be or won’t she be appointed surrounding Caroline Kennedy, Feingold had enough, and he is not the only one.

We, among others, are against this concept of place-holders taking seats in the United States Senate. This is not some gentrified body akin to the British House of Lords with seats passed down through the generations. In this country members of the Senate are elected – and elected directly by the people – so sayest the 17th Amendment of the Constitution, which was ratified April 8, 1913.

The one caveat to the direct election portion of the 17th Amendment is in the case of a vacancy, which is then filled by an appointment made by the governor. This is the place where smoke-filled, back-room deals are forged – assuming there are still places for people to legally smoke.

Since the ascendancy to the White House by Barack Obama, himself a former member of the world’s most exclusive club, the Senate has been raided. Former Senator Joe Biden of Delaware no longer needs the services of Amtrak as the vice president has a DC residence. Former New York Senator Hillary Clinton is now Secretary of State, former Senator Ken Salazar heads up the Interior Department and New Hampshire Senator Judd Gregg is on the cusp of becoming the Commerce Secretary. That’s five senators who have already moved or will move on.

Feingold has called for, and rightfully so, ending the system of filling Senate vacancies via gubernatorial appointment. Instead, holding special elections is the answer. This avoids any of the stench of impropriety that dragged the Land of Lincoln through the mud and in the year of his bicentennial, no less. This avoids the speculation as to whether or not a seemingly pre-ordained nominee would actually be nominated. This avoids the concept of the place-holder – a person appointed to fill the vacancy under the prearranged agreement that the new senator would not seek election in his or her own right because that seat “belongs” to a particular other person.

Nonsense. The seat belongs to the people of the given state and should be up to them to determine who is privileged enough to sit in that seat for six years – or longer should the people say so. If the 17th Amendment granted the people the authority to directly elect its senators, that law should be consistent and grant the people the same authority when a vacancy occurs.

Throw it open to any qualified citizen of the state. There are but three qualifications to serve in the United State Senate: to have reached the age of 30 by the time of the swearing in, to have been a citizen of the United States for nine years and to be a resident of the state from which he or she has been elected. Nowhere in the Constitution are there any codicils granting anyone’s children a right to a vacated seat or that the new senator should be of the same political party as the former senator or any other quirky designation or stipulation regarding the filling of said vacancy. All of this can be avoided by amending the 17th Amendment, which based upon past history, see the 18th and 21st amendments, would require an entirely new amendment to the Constitution.

Does Beau Biden have a right to the senate seat long held by his father, now the vice president? Based upon the above criteria, he does – provided he earns his party’s nomination and wins a general election that November. But to have Ted Kaufman appointed to “hold” the seat for the younger Biden knowing Kaufman won’t seek the seat in an election is absurd and quite frankly smacks of un-Americanism.

What right does Judd Gregg have in suggesting to New Hampshire Governor John Lynch that he will only accept the Commerce Secretary nomination if another Republican is appointed in his place? None. Lynch, a Democrat has the legal right to appoint any qualified citizen of New Hampshire based upon the above criteria. By appointing Republican Bonnie Newman to fill out Gregg’s unexpired term only to have her not seek election in her own right creates an open seat in 2010 and gives the advantage to the Democrats. After all, from south of Maine through Virginia there would be but one Republican senator on the east coast – Newman. Should Al Franken manage to steal the Minnesota senate seat, currently undergoing a recount, the Democrats are but one seat shy of a veto-proof body.

If this is a nation that believes in the people’s right to elect its leaders, let’s ensure their right to do so by allowing for special elections to fill vacancies.

Sanford D. Horn is a writer and political consultant living in Alexandria, VA.

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