Home > Uncategorized > Democracy’s Misfit: the Interim Senate Appointment

Democracy’s Misfit: the Interim Senate Appointment

Last week the United States Senate managed to occupy center stage on the national scene, no small feat given the array of economic catastrophes unfolding daily. Yet, the spotlight is hardly flattering to the Senate leadership.

The Senate refused to seat Roland Burris, the person appointed by beleaguered Illinois Governor Rod Blagoivitch to fill the seat vacated by President-elect Barack Obama.

With startling irony, Senate leader Reid invoked a “qualifications” clause in Senate rules to reject Mr. Burris, a man who would be, were he actually seated, one of the most qualified in the Senate.

Reid has since relented from this untenable position but the whole episode displays the glaring inadequacies of the gubernatorial appointment method of United States Senators.

Like a joker in the political deck, the gubernatorial appointment turns the political game on its head, substituting the objectives of one person, the Governor, for the judgment of millions. This curious practice deviates from democratic custom and is constitutionally unwarranted.

The Seventeenth Amendment to the Constitution, in addressing United States Senate vacancies, afforded discretion to the States in the issuance of “writs of elections” or, to put it plainly, special elections. The Seventeenth Amendment authorizes temporary appointments but arguably only to ensure representation pending a speedy special election.

This plain intent of the Amendment was undermined by the New York Public Officers Law which allows, in fact, requires, long appointment periods like the two years New Yorkers will be forced to wait before directly electing Hillary Clinton’s successor. In 1968, Governor Rockefeller’s appointment of Bobby Kennedy’s successor lasted 29 months before direct election.

Other states have implemented the provisions of the Seventeenth Amendment more flexibly, including, oddly enough, Illinois which affords the Illinois legislature the power, as yet unexercised, to call for a special election.

In two states, we are now watching the unseemly byproducts of this undemocratic practice. In Illinois, it tempted the wayward Governor off a moral cliff, and probably a legal one, when he discussed selling the Senate seat to the highest bidder, but it has also diverted Illinois law enforcement officials from prosecuting him, as they focused simultaneously on blocking his appointing authority.

In New York, the effect is no less distracting: While David Paterson labors mightily to steady the ship of New York State after the collapse of Wall Street, his concentration is inevitably undermined by the spectacle of–and the resulting media obsession with–the daughter of a fabled president imploring the Governor for a patronage job: a no-win situation for two of New York’s most admired leaders.

Even from the standpoint of party politics, Senator Clinton’s Democratic replacement may not reap the advantage of incumbency in 2010 that many predict. Whoever the appointment, he or she will be less compelling than the immensely popular Chuck Schumer, also running in 2010, for a full term, and perhaps easier electoral prey to Republican appeals.

The unpopularity of the interim Senate appointment process with the public is revealed in the statistical fact that the overwhelming majority of such appointees have been defeated in the next election. The public has an uncanny way of rebelling against fiat, and this undemocratic procedure is surely that.

It is time now for the New York State legislature to revise the current statute that requires this undemocratic interruption in the people’s right to determine their representatives. A quick special election will not only elicit the public’s respect, but also buttress the budget trimming efforts of a Governor who has done much in his short tenure to earn it.


Stu Brody is President of Integrity Intensive (www.integrityintensive.com) which provides workshops on practicing integrity to young politicians and

public servants, and former Chair of the New York State Democratic Rural Conference.   

  1. David F. Silverman
    January 15, 2009 at 3:01 am

    Mr. Brody, You have some very valid points in your argument. Why don’t you run for the NYS senate seat when it becomes vacant. It is about time we had an honest hardworking component person wprking for New York. Thumbs up to you sir.

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