Absolutely Shocking (not)

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.

7 thoughts on “Absolutely Shocking (not)

  1. Joshua Tucker

    I suppose that part of the appeal of allowing a governor to appoint a Senate successor lies in the predictability of the partisanship of the successor. If you are the president then perhaps you will be more hesitant to appoint a member of the Senate from your own party to your cabinet if you don’t know that he or she will be replaced a member of your own party. (Interesting empirical question: how often have presidents appointed Senators as cabinet members when that Senator comes from a state with a governor from the opposite party?) Thus, Obama can now appoint Clinton confident that this will not hurt him in the Senate. Given the current state of NY politics, one could suppose this shouldn’t be too big of a worry even if there was a special election, but perhaps Giuliani or Bloomberg might have chosen to run for an open Senate seat. Even more generally, we could suppose that having special elections to fill open Senate seats could hurt the cabinet prospects of Senators from “swing” senate states than those from “safe” senate state. This would also answer your question of why the House (the uncertainty of losing 1/435 supporters) might be of less concern than the Senate (the uncertainty of losing 1/100 supporters, especially in a chamber where you really need 60 seats). Of course, this then begs the question of how often a Senate seat goes vacant b/c of a presidential appointment as opposed to other reasons.

    I also thought of the time issue, so my question is whether the Georgia run-off is the appropriate metric. That was carried out quickly because the field was already narrowed to two candidates. What generally happens for special elections to the House? How fast are they typically carried out? And if special elections require for vacant Senate seats forces us to skip the primary stage, then don’t we still have opportunities for a lot of wheeling and dealing between potential candidates and whomever picks the party nominee?

    1. Nolan McCarty Post author

      I can understand why its “appealing” to the governor, but not sure why its best for the state’s citizens.

      Different states handle special house elections in different ways. But they are usually non-partisan, multi-candidate elections. Sometime there is a second- round runoff election.

    2. Joshua Tucker

      I wasn’t arguing it was appealing to the governor so much as appealing to the President making the appointment. If that’s the case, then it would decrease the likelihood of certain Senators getting into the cabinet (e.g., Clinton) if vacating their Senate seat could possibly threatened the President’s power in the Senate.

  2. Boris Shor

    Sure. Of course, the term is for a maximum of two years, so there’s an electoral check on the pick. I wonder what kind of incumbency advantage one gets from being appointed? Especially if we believe the advantage comes from quality, which wouldn’t be revealed if the senator came in via appointment as opposed to election.

  3. Boris Shor

    It looks like the power of governors to unilaterally appoint senatorial replacements is regulated by statute, at least in Illinois. The speed with which the legislature is considering a special election for the seat is amazing. Which implies that this gubernatorial power is in fact delegated from the legislature — bringing up all sorts of principal-agent questions. Very, very interesting.

    1. Nolan McCarty Post author

      Boris: You make a very good point about the appointment powers of governors being regulated by statute rather than the constitution in some state. It would be interesting to see a list of provisions for each state.

      But by “unfettered” and “unaccountable” I really meant that the selection process lacks transparency, checks, and balances. Yes, the legislature can change the statute for future vacancies (and this one if they do it soon enough). But once a senator is lawfully selected by the governor, the state legislature cannot remove him/her from office.

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