In 1913, the 17th Amendment to the United States Constitution made the federal government more democratically accountable by eliminating state legislatures’ role in appointing members of the Senate. Almost a century later, Barack Obama’s aggressive penchant for filling his administration with sitting senators — starting with himself, but also including Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton LAW ’73 and Ken Salazar — has left the residents of four states wondering what happens when the democratic process is unavailable as an option for filling an empty seat.
So far, the results of democracy-by-appointment have been less than pretty. The second clause of the amendment empowers state governors to fill temporary vacancies until a vote can be held. With three of the outgoing senators’ terms set to expire in January 2011 (and a special election already set for November 2010 in Delaware), the prospect of a time-consuming and expensive special election in the next few months appeals to virtually no one. Four states’ chief executives have therefore been handed what one of them, Illinois’ Rod Blagojevich, labeled “a [expletive] valuable thing”: the chance to appoint a United States senator and reap the associated benefits in political (or, as Blagojevich fantasized, financial) capital.
Most of us are familiar with the farcical machinations that have led to the recent seating of Roland Burris in President-elect Obama’s seat in Illinois. Burris’ senatorial accomplishments, whatever form they take, will always be undermined by his willingness to accept Gov. Blagojevich’s tainted nomination to the post.
In New York, a mere suggestion from Caroline Kennedy that she would happily succeed Clinton — combined with her insinuation that she could raise stratospheric piles of money for a re-election campaign — has made her a national media darling. If appointed, Kennedy, like Burris, may well prove a diligent and earnest senator, but it’s hard to believe that anything other than her last name has inspired such heated speculation.
Delaware’s outgoing governor, Ruth Ann Minner, moved quickly to fill Joe Biden’s seat with Ted Kaufman, a longtime aid to the vice-president elect who promised not to run for re-election. The combination of Kaufman’s appointment and the schedule for the special election seems to guarantee that Joe Biden’s son Beau (the state’s attorney general, who is currently serving in Iraq as a member of the Delaware National Guard) will be the Democratic nominee for the seat in 2010 and, barring a shocking upset, fill his father’s shoes come 2011. Delaware’s voters will have a choice in the matter, but the Kaufman appointment suggests a deliberate attempt to hand the seat down while preserving the appearance of democratic selection.
Only Colorado seems poised to avoid both nepotism and corruption. By appointing Michael Bennet LAW ’93, the former editor in chief of the Yale Law Review, Gov. Bill Ritter has chosen a true policy wonk and a man who could quickly assume the mantle of “smartest person in the Senate.” More importantly, Ritter’s selection of Bennet seems like a deliberate attempt to promote meritocracy without sacrificing democracy.
As critics have pointed out, Michael Bennet has never been elected to any office. For many, this is a potential disqualifier — and the same charge has been leveled against Kennedy and Kaufman. But, unlike the others, Bennet has neither the financial clout to virtually ensure re-election nor the intention to step aside for a favorite son. His resume of public service may not include elected office, but he served Denver as Mayor John Hickenlooper’s chief of staff and was the Denver Public Schools superintendent for nearly a decade. In less than two years, he’ll have the chance to wipe “never been elected” off his record in a race that promises to be hotly contested.
Bennet isn’t the sort of person who typically wins statewide elections. His thoughtfulness and wonkishness make him easy prey for the sort of charismatic blowhards that too often succeed in state politics. At the same time, his intelligence and dedication to public service render him deserving of the opportunity to serve in the Senate — and to run for election based not on promises and rhetoric, but on an existing legislative record. Gov. Ritter has found a man who belongs in the Senate but probably wouldn’t get there under ordinary circumstances.
When Americans look back on the appointment farce of the 111th Senate, Bennet’s rise will hopefully offer a template for future senatorial appointments. By using his extraordinary appointment power to elevate a distinguished public servant into a political role, Ritter has shown a commendable desire to enrich the Senate even as his peers have strived to enrich themselves or their cronies.
Xan White is a senior in Pierson College.