Illinois politics has never been a font of civic virtue, but (if true) the charges that Governor Rod Blagojevich tried to sell Obama’s Senate seat may represent a new low.
Not to absolve Blagojevich, but much of the problem lays in the anachronistic powers that allow many state governors to fill U.S. Senate vacancies. This may be one of the most unfettered and unaccountable powers vested in most governors. Even pardon and commutation powers are often subject to more procedural openness and limitations. While I’m unaware of an abuse as extraordinary as the one Blogojevich was allegedly perpetrating, recently we’ve seen the appointment of family members and speculation about the appointment of semi-qualified celebrities. (Can someone explain why other than the fact that she can pay for her own reelection Caroline Kennedy is the most qualified New Yorker to serve in the Senate?).
It is not clear why most governors still retain the unilateral power to fill Senate vacancies. The typical argument is that states are at a large disadvantage if they are even temporarily underrepresented in the Senate. But this argument seems very weak. Why is Senate under-representation so much more disadvantageous than House under-representation that special elections are okay for the House but not for the Senate? Second, the delays associated with a special election need not be that great. After all, in the time Blagojevich has taken to create a market for the Illinois Senate seat, the state of Georgia has already successfully completed a runoff election for Senate. Of course, running statewide special elections are expensive. But it is hard to think of anything as expensive as the debasing of the public trust that appears to have happened in Illinois.