I thought that the l’affaire Blagojevich was the best argument for my belief that Senate vacancies should be filled only by special election. But witnessing what has transpired with Hillary Clinton’s Senate seat, I have changed my mind — New York, not Illinois, should be Exhibit A.
As illustrated by Governor Rod, any institution designed by humans can be corrupted by corrupt individuals. But the process that let to Kirsten Gillibrand’s appointment shows that gubernatorial Senate appointments are a bad idea even when otherwise decent and well-meaning people are involved.
I have no particular beef with Senator-appoint Gillibrand. By all accounts, she is a talented up-and-comer. Her centrism will probably be a boost both to New York and to the Democratic ticket in 2010. But the average New Yorker certainly knows far less about her than they do about Caroline Kennedy, Carolyn Maloney, Andrew Cuomo, or any of the other leading contenders.
Although I never thought it was a good idea to appoint Kennedy to the seat, there is something terribly unseemly about the insinuations and innuendo that are now flying back and forth between her people and Patterson’s people. Whether she had a nanny or tax problem, wouldn’t it have been better to have it in the open before a voting public rather than have David Patterson be the judge and jury about whether it disqualified her from office?
It will be interesting to see whether Carolyn McCarthy carries through with her threat to challenge Gillibrand in the Democratic primary over her support for gun rights. Based on DW-NOMINATE scores, Gillibrand is the most conservative Democrat in the NY delgation while McCarthy is 4th most (of 23). So I suspect guns is one of only a handful of issues that divide them. It is not in the Democratic Party’s best interest to have a contested primary focused exclusively on gun control.
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.