Corruption

Dispensing with Democracy

Why voters should decide who gets to fill Senate vacancies

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"Experience keeps a dear school," wrote Benjamin Franklin, "but fools will learn in no other." Right now, Americans are getting a crash course in the folly of our general approach to filling vacancies in the United States Senate. But so far, there is little evidence that we are learning the obvious lesson.

This week, President Obama appointed Sen. Judd Gregg, a Republican, to head the Commerce Department. When the idea was floated, cynics suspected a sinister motive. New Hampshire has a Democratic governor, John Lynch, and the iron tradition is that a governor, faced with a vacancy, fills it with someone from his own party—even if it differs from that of the departing senator.

As it happens, Democrats were already on the verge of gaining their 59th seat, assuming Al Franken's apparent victory in Minnesota stands. Gregg's resignation would give them the chance to reach 60, the magic number for the dominant party to do anything it wants.

But that suspicion was in error. Gregg told the president he would accept only if Lynch would name a Republican replacement, denying Democrats a filibuster-proof majority. Lynch agreed, choosing Bonnie Newman, whose promise not to run in 2010 gives both parties a fair shot at capturing the seat.

On the surface, this sounds good. Obama gets to reaffirm his commitment to transcending old enmities, improving the chances for bipartisan cooperation. The Cabinet gets someone who will discourage the president from veering too far left. The Senate balance remains intact, impeding Democrats from oppressing the minority.

It's a far cry from the debacle in Illinois, where a governor allegedly tried to sell Obama's vacant Senate seat for personal gain—and who, when that reported attempt came to light, appointed Roland Burris mainly because he had the same skin color as Obama. By comparison, the New Hampshire approach looks like a model of responsible stewardship.

Until, that is, you remember the clear loser in the deal: the people of the state, who for the next two years will be represented by someone they have never elected to any office, didn't elect to this one, and may not want. As a bonus for their trouble, if it turns out they do like her, they can't keep her.

Rod Blagojevich treated a Senate appointment as a get-rich-quick scheme. Obama, Gregg, and Lynch treat it as a tool for arranging the Washington political landscape to their liking. In each case, the voters are reduced to potted plants.

These are not the only examples of politicians bypassing democracy. In New York, Gov. David Paterson toyed with naming Caroline Kennedy to replace Hillary Clinton, until she backed out and he chose Kirsten Gillibrand. In Colorado, Gov. Bill Ritter selected Michael Bennet to take over for Ken Salazar.

Delaware Gov. Ruth Ann Minner asked Ted Kaufman, a longtime aide to Joe Biden, to serve out his term. So right now, 5 percent of the nation's highest legislative body will consist of members installed without the consent of the governed.

Only a handful of states make a practice of holding a special election to fill vacant Senate seats. Most leave it to the governor if the opening occurs less than two years before the next regular election.

That may have made sense back in the days when senators were chosen by state legislatures, as stipulated in the U.S. Constitution. Voters didn't get a say until the 17th Amendment was ratified in 1913. But if democracy is a better way to choose senators for six-year terms, it stands to reason that it's also a better way to choose senators for two-year terms.

True, elections cost money. Too bad. If cost were the dominant consideration, we wouldn't have them at all. No one would argue that in a period of fiscal distress—say, a recession—we should suspend normal democratic procedures to conserve cash. So how can we justify dispensing with the voters when it comes time to fill a Senate seat?

Some governors are honest and conscientious in making such appointments. Some are not. But in the most fundamental sense, it doesn't matter. Even the most honest, public-spirited governor is incapable of divining whom the people would elect if given the chance. A single person should not be entrusted with such unchecked authority.

Rod Blagojevich proved that. And no other governor has furnished a convincing rebuttal.

COPYRIGHT 2009 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.

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  1. Democracy is not the all-important value in American Constitution. If it were, the Senate would not exist, at ;east not composed as it is. You need another amendment for what Chapman is proposing or at least to convinve all the state legislatures to hold special elections for Senate seats.

  2. Yeah, now you are talking! Let the voters decide! Right now the entire system is CORRUPT!

    RT
    http://www.online-anonymity.at.tc

  3. Yeah, what John said, because voters have such a great track record at weeding out corruption.

  4. The seventeenth amendment was the beginning of the end of America. The founders wisely put the selection of Senators in the hands of the state parties. Letting ignorant fools vote for Senators was how we got the crop of shitbags we have now. Chapman is an idiot.

  5. My concern is that a special election tends to be a four- to six-week mad scramble that doesn’t really provide the opportunity for sufficient deliberation. At the same time, I’ve very sympathetic to the pro-democracy argument. On the third hand, if we wait long enough for there to be a “real” election campaign, the state misses out on half its Senate representation.

    Here’s my proposal: the governor appoints an acting Senator, and a regular election is held to fill the seat during the next regularly-scheduled Congressional elections. The acting Senator who was appointed is not allowed to run in that election.

  6. In each case, the voters are reduced to potted plants.

    Watch what you’re saying, pal.

    I’m very sensitive about being compared to American voters.

  7. We should just repeal the 17th Amendment and let the state legislatures decide all the time. This has several points in its favor. For those concerned about corruption and money in politics, it means that Senators would no longer have to spend time scrambling for money for election campaigns. Instead, all that money would get distributed around the state capitols, where its power would be diluted proportionally. Senators could focus more on actually reading bills and less on stroking constituents. (Of course, they might also focus more on **writing** bills, which would be a Bad Thing.) It might get people paying more attention to state elections, since who controls your state legislature determines who your Senator will be. And it would definitely restore the states to their proper role as participants in the federal enterprise.

  8. The seventeenth amendment was the beginning of the end of America. The founders wisely put the selection of Senators in the hands of the state parties. Letting ignorant fools vote for Senators was how we got the crop of shitbags we have now.

    Nah. The old senate was just corrupt in different ways. All that changing the source of the appointment process did was make the corruption come from different sources, for different reasons. “Would you rather have a tampon popsicle, or a turd sandwich?”

    Chapman is an idiot.

    Still true.

  9. It’s rare that I read something this ridiculous on Reason.

  10. I think that people who write “The founders wisely put the selection of Senators in the hands of the state parties. should avoid calling anyone a fool or an idiot.

  11. It’s tough to square this hostility to the popular vote with the assertions I always see that libertarians are anti-elitist.

  12. At least “corrupt in different ways” means that the corruption of the two houses was not aligned. And the Senate did used to act as a brake on anything too crazy. That tradition continued past the ratification of the 17th but has pretty much disappeared today.

  13. good to see horatio hack alive and well.

  14. Joe, dis the founders all you want. Most of the stuff they wrote goes against your big government loving grain anyway.

  15. cheap shot, joe – I advocate a Madisonian ideal where procedural hurdles are put in place to prevent the aggregation of power, not because I distrust the average American. If anything, it is rational for people to vote themselves benefits from the public treasury. I just want to make it all that much harder to do.

  16. I should have said “Madisonian idea” rather than ideal.

    Anyway, believing in the division of the Congress, where one house represents the people and the other the States, is in line with the ideas of the federal republic.

  17. Chapman is an idiot.

    Chapman: an idiot, or the idiot?

  18. I hearby state at 14:17 UK time ” Screw all you farmers who are obsessed about the American government”. My life is smoking marijuana all day long and laughing at democrats and all republicans

  19. I’m not dissing the founders, genius. I’m dissing your ignorant assertion that they put Senate seats in the hands of political parties.

    A. There were no political parties when the Constitution was written.

    B. The Founders were strongly opposed to political parties.

    C. Senate seats were filled by state legislatures. Not parties.

  20. TAO,

    Anyway, believing in the division of the Congress, where one house represents the people and the other the States, is in line with the ideas of the federal republic. What are the “states,” if not the people of those states?

  21. While there’s a lot to say in favor of voter-selection for interim Senate replacements, as usual Chapman misses the forest for all the trees here. Having the central government usurp yet more power from the several States, this time by a Constitutional Amendment (Chapman’s support of which appears to be implied through his reference to the XVII Amendment,) will have a more deleterious effect on our liberty than the occasional Senate appointments by corrupt politicians like Blago.

  22. PACMAN – no one wants to hear from Airstrip One. Pipe down and have a crumpet, willya?

  23. What are the “states,” if not the people of those states?

    Do you think that the most useful and conceptual definition of the Federal Government is nothing more than “us” and “our will”? The States are governments that administer to the people within a given geographical area; the government is a mechanism (where we delegate our individual autonomy in the form of Powers to the State). You seem to have an organic view of government.

  24. I submit Al Franken as a pretty good example of why voters shouldn’t elect senators.

  25. Well, maybe not a good example considering he probably lost the election.

  26. AAAAH, it hurts! Make it stop! make it stop
    *whimper*
    Please. No more Chapman
    pleeeeeaaaasseee
    *sob*

  27. You know you love it, Warren.

  28. Putting Senate seats in the hands of state legislatures just makes fewer people to buy to get the seat.

    [Not my blog]
    http://illinoisreview.typepad.com/illinoisreview/2008/12/the-last-tiime.html

  29. Would the state of Illinois really be better off it Blago hadn’t succumbed to temptation on this?

  30. Warren – you could always not read the post, like I didn’t. It’s much more relaxing this way.

  31. All Senate vacancies should be filled by the Governor’s favorite horse.

  32. There’s no great mystery as to why the Senate was set up differently than the House. The Founders were big fans of Montesquieu and Polybius and bought into the idea of a mixed constitution (which was a popular theory in England at the time, too)–with aristocratic, monarchic, and democratic components.

    I think most would agree today that allowing any of those three elements total preeminence would be a bad idea. However, what we’ve done, it seems to me, is to weaken the aristocratic element and to strengthen the other two elements. This allows the uglier sides of the stronger elements, which lack the aristocratic check, to come out more than they did before.

    In the U.S. system, the “aristocratic” element, of course, was found in the federal courts (lifetime tenure) and in the Senate. But, unlike England at the time, there were checks from the other elements in place–nomination and confirmation for judges, appointment by popularly elected state bodies for the Senate. By making the Senate into House II, an inherent check within Congress itself was removed.

    Just to make a long post longer, here’s a nice bit on the corruption of the democratic element (the other elements have corrupt forms as well):

    Democracies can be corrupted in two ways: by what Montesquieu calls “the spirit of inequality” and “the spirit of extreme equality” (SL 8.2). The spirit of inequality arises when citizens no longer identify their interests with the interests of their country, and therefore seek both to advance their own private interests at the expense of their fellow citizens, and to acquire political power over them. The spirit of extreme equality arises when the people are no longer content to be equal as citizens, but want to be equal in every respect. In a functioning democracy, the people choose magistrates to exercise executive power, and they respect and obey the magistrates they have chosen. If those magistrates forfeit their respect, they replace them. When the spirit of extreme equality takes root, however, the citizens neither respect nor obey any magistrate. They “want to manage everything themselves, to debate for the senate, to execute for the magistrate, and to decide for the judges” (SL 8.2). Eventually the government will cease to function, the last remnants of virtue will disappear, and democracy will be replaced by despotism. (From the Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Montesquieu)

  33. All Senate vacancies should be filled by the Governor’s favorite horse.

    Ah, the Caligula Solution. I like it.

  34. The seventeenth amendment was the beginning of the end of America.

    Popular election of Senators broke one of the foundation stones of the Republic – the ability of states to serve as a check on the power of the national government.

    Sure, sure, state-appointed Senators would be just as self-serving as the popularly elected kind, but they would be self-serving in different ways, ways that would serve as a check on, rather than as a driver of, the growth of the national government.

  35. “Senator Incitatus! Please stop shitting everywhere!”

    “Neigh!”

    “Asshole always votes ‘no.'”

  36. R C Dean,

    The states were just one part of that check. My point above was that the Founders also intended to isolate the Senate from the potential corruption of the democratic elements in the House by making them more withdrawn from the direct influence of the people. Longer terms, indirect election, a more deliberative role in the Constitution. Most of that, sadly, is gone, so one more wall between us an tyranny has been breached.

    By the way, I’d be equally unhappy if the original democratic elements were crapped on.

  37. Popular election of Senators broke one of the foundation stones of the Republic – the ability of states to serve as a check on the power of the national government.

    I don’t understand this argument – Senators are elected state by state. They are still answerable to their states.

    Do the people of each of the various states have less of a desire to promote the interest of their individual states than the legislatures and governors of those states?

  38. If we got rid of the 17th, there would be a new focus on the House of Representatives. It would be an actual people’s house, rather than just a waiting room for the Senate.

    BTW, does Blago look like Phil Spector’s timid son in that picture, or is it just me?

  39. joe,

    I think this is one fundamental difference between the classical liberal view of government and the modern liberal view. We tend to see the democratic component of the government as critical, but critical only as part of the system. In other words, it’s more of a means than an end. Little or zero democratic influence is bad to us, too, but too much democratic influence is also bad in our eyes. We’re more champions of balance and of checks on any governmental power.

    To most modern liberals, I think the democratic element tends to be more of an end. That is, increasing the power of the democratic element is a good in and of itself. That’s not surprising, of course, given the egalitarian focus of the left. I hasten to add that I don’t think that the left–at least, not its intelligentsia–wants total mob rule, either. Also, where libertarians want limited government, even if that means leaving people at the margins without specific government protection (other than that which exists for all citizens), modern liberals tend to view protecting those at the margins as more important than limiting government.

    This is a roundabout way of explaining why you don’t get our feeling that an indirect election of Senators is best and why we don’t get why you like the direction election. It’s a battle of core assumptions.

  40. Pro Lib,

    While I disagree with the argument you’re making about limiting democracy – apparently, not even representative democracy with elections spread out over three 20-year cycles to allow passions to cool is a good enough – it at least makes logical sense. I get what you’re saying.

    The federalism argument, on the other hand, makes no sense to me. The 17th really did move us from a less-democratic to a more-democratic method of choosing Senators, but it didn’t more us from a more-state-based to a less-state-based method of choosing them.

  41. er, three 2-year cycles.

  42. It’s one of those axioms. I understand what you’re saying, too, but I don’t get it ?

    On the state issue, I suppose the way to look at it is to view the state governments as a separate force in the federal system. In other words, there are the following actors: the people, the states, the federal courts, the House, the Senate, and the presidency. Even today, that list is an accurate one, though the independent power of the states is much weaker than it once was–to the benefit of the federal government, which has grown in power at their expense.

    State power is tainted due to the use of states rights arguments to promote racism and due to its role in other inflammatory debates (where people don’t like the federal solution to whatever problem they have). However, it is a valid check on federal power in a couple of ways. Leaving certain matters to state authority keeps those matters away from the central government. To the extent that the states play a role in the federal system itself, they also limit federal action. The Senate was the big example of that, but there are legacies of that still around, like elections.

  43. Perhaps, Pro Libertate, my confusion on this point stems from that same pro-democracy philosophy; I see the people of a state as playing that same role in the federal system as the legislative and executive branches of that state, and people like RC don’t.

    It might also have something to do with the people of each state being, also, people of the United States, while the state governments are not part of the federal government in any way, and have no such “divided loyalties.” So to speak.

  44. Well, the states’ role is definitely diminished. No question of that. Philosophically, we all agree that all sovereignty stems ultimately from the people. But limits on the exercise of that sovereignty is what we disagree about.

    Doesn’t matter that much, anyway. Like the Commerce Clause, the states’ role in the federal government has wasted away to very little.

  45. It might also have something to do with the people of each state being, also, people of the United States, while the state governments are not part of the federal government in any way

    Right, but the way that you channel those “dueling interest groups”, as it were, is to let the ‘masses’ be represented in the big, population-adjusted House (I think we need to lift, or at least raise, the cap on representatives) and let the state governments be represented in the Senate.

    Now, when you say that the states are not part of the federal government, that really is not in line with the original intent of the republic. Keep in mind that the Confederation was designed to have the states essentially “be” the federal government when overarching rules (very limited) were needed. Of course, the Confederation was toothless and ineffectual, but the intent was still that the states would join together in common defense, so they were a crucial part of the federal government, in that the emanations of state powers were designed to comprise the entirety of federal powers. (Uhhh…kind of…)

  46. I don’t understand this argument – Senators are elected state by state. They are still answerable to their states.

    They are not answerable to the state government. Our system was designed so that the state governments had a mechanism to act as an institutional check on the federal government. That institutional check is gone.

    State governments are genetically programmed to defend their turf; now they have no way to do so, and so we get things like medical marijuana raids, federal “police power” mandates dressed up as funding requirements, etc.

  47. TAO,

    Now, when you say that the states are not part of the federal government, that really is not in line with the original intent of the republic. Well, sure, but that was scrapped in favor of the Constitution, which set up a federal government that existed in its own right.

    My point was, the states are not part of the federal GOVERNMENT, even though they’re part of the federal SYSTEM. The system was deliberately set up so that the system would include states which were independent from the federal government.

    RC,

    State governments are genetically programmed to defend their turf And the people of each state are not? Then why do they keep electing Robert Byrd, for example, if not to look out for their own state?

  48. Is your argument that the state governments have institutional power that the people of those states do not, RC? Is that it?

  49. My concern is that a special election tends to be a four- to six-week mad scramble that doesn’t really provide the opportunity for sufficient deliberation.

    Europeans (Im counting canadiens and aussies) find it silly that we need longer than that for elections. I hate the long election cycles, I think (in this one particular case) they are right.

  50. Since states can’t run deficits, the moochers will go against the state’s interests to get goodies from the feds. Democracies are hopeless.

  51. Joe,

    While your ABC are true, you left out the obvious following from A and B.

    Despite their non-existence and the founders hatred, they also knew they would soon exist and would control C.

    Considering almost all the founders immediately joined a party, I dont really think they hated them.

    I wouldnt have stated it that way, but it is a fairly accurate account of what happened.

  52. The 17th is bad because it broke one of the checks and balances. The state legislature was supposed to be a check on the federal government.

    Their was a house representing the people directly and a house representing the state governments.

    In combination with the 16th, it was especially destructive. Without the 16th, the feds had to either get money from tariffs or proportionately from the states*. The states werent going to let the latter happen to any great degree.

    *I realize there are a few other revenue sources, Im not trying to be complete.

  53. Robc you stole my argument. He’s right. It is the combination of the 16th and 17th that has ruined this country. Before that the states paid for the federal government AND they had representation in that body. That combination kept a check on the growth of the government. Now with direct taxation and direct election the gates are wide open for massive growth and abuse.

  54. I would favor putting the election of senators back in the hands of state legislatures for one simple reason: It would disalign the House and Senate so that they would be less likely to pass legislation. That’s really the only reason.

    Oh, yeah, and Steve Chapman is the idiot.
    OSCAR
    OSCAR
    OSCAR

  55. “Would you rather have a tampon popsicle, or a turd sandwich?”

    No, the tampon popsicle was the third party candidate. The major-party candidates were giant douche and turd sandwich.

  56. Chapman wants to stop the election of Senators and leave it to state governments to appoint?

    I can’t wait to see what wonderful Senators we get from Illinois and Louisiana.

  57. The most senior congressman (or congresswoman, shut up lefiti) should be moved into that senate seat. The govenor could then appoint a new congressman, who would be up for re-election within two years.

  58. People who wish state legislatures to choose Senators should take a good look at their state legislature.

  59. joe, let me try an example (with which you might disagree). If the state legislatures controlled who was in the Senate, it’s my belief that you’d see fewer unfunded mandates dumped on the states. Take NCLB for example, or REAL ID. You’d also avoid things like a nationally mandated 55 mile per hour speeding limit, or a virtually federally-mandated 21 year old minimum drinking age. I think state legislators are more likely to give a senator the boot for passing laws like those than voters at large are.

  60. I agree absolutely. Voters should fill vacancies through special elections to avoid scandalous issues as in Illinois and embarassments as in New York.

    I followed both of those stories closely on my blog: http://thepurplecenter.blogspot.com/

  61. Ah! This is great. Just what I was looking for. Thank you!

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