Governor Rod Blagojevich's aborted attempt to ransom off Barack Obama's Senate seat is being held out as yet the latest example of Illinois' famously sleazy politics. But chalking up this fire sale to Chicago chicanery or even to the chutzpah of a Governor with kielbasa for brains misses a more fundamental point: The mere practice of appointing U.S. Senators is inherently prone to abuse, as all three recent vacancies bear out.
Take Delaware, for example. There, Governor Ruth Ann Minner, a Democrat, is appointing a guy named Ted Kaufman to succeed Joe Biden in the Senate. Who? Ted Kaufman -- a no-name to you and me (and to most of Delaware's scattering of citizens), except that Kaufman was Biden's chief of staff until the appointment. Upon news of his big promotion last month, Kaufman promptly announced that he wouldn't run for the seat when it's up in two years. And if you're wondering why Minner would appoint a guy to a job he's not interested in holding, it may help to know that Joe Biden's preferred candidate -- his son, Beau, the state's Attorney General -- is tied up in the National Guard at least through the end of this year. However, appointment of family friend/Senate seat caretaker Kaufman gives the younger Biden plenty of time to get his ducks in a row and seek the seat in 2010, as political analysts are certain he'll do.
In New York, meanwhile, Hillary Clinton's expected move to Condoleeza Rice's digs has set off an unseemly scramble of its own. There, Governor David Paterson--who knows a thing or two about unlikely elevations, thanks to Eliot Spitzer--is the sole decider of who'll now get to wear the Senatorial pantsuit. Caroline Kennedy's purported interest in the seat, while oddly hypnotic in a those-were-the-days sort of way, means that those poor schlubs who've spent the better part of their adult lives trudging for votes in Buffalo or pressing the flesh in Poughkeepsie may well watch another celebrity parachute into New York's nationalized Senate seat (just ask Rep. Nita Lowey how much fun that was to watch when Hillary Clinton did it). Ted Kennedy's been campaigning for his niece to get the seat (once held by his brother, Bobby), say the papers, and Kerry Kennedy -- Caroline's cousin and the ex-wife of New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, the guy who seemed to have the best shot at it till Caroline came along -- has taken to the airwaves to make the case for not-her-ex-husband -- er, her cousin.
Don't get me wrong -- I like Caroline Kennedy. But is she really the most qualified person in all of New York for the job? And doesn't the Kennedy vs. Cuomo angle smack a little of Macbeth, with old family scores being settled on a national stage, while Reps. Carolyn Maloney, Kirsten Gillibrand and Steve Israel -- all Senate hopefuls -- stir the caldron and mumble nonsense in the background? Aides to Paterson say he won't be influenced by all the Kennedy hubbub in deciding on the appointment. Uh huh.
So why are these big-time jobs divvied out by appointment, rather than contested through special elections? Well, the Constitution gives states the power to fill Senate vacancies (a hold-over from the day when states appointed all Senators), and most states give their Governors that privilege (annoyingly, candidates actually have to run for House vacancies). Sure, special elections are expensive, but if we really want to save money, why not appoint all our Senators -- and all our House members, for that matter?
Appointed Senators do have to face the voters eventually, but the generally two-year head start gives appointees a leg up on the competition. Just ask Lisa Murkowski, a Republican who was appointed by her father, then-Governor Frank Murkowski, to his old job in the U.S. Senate. Lisa Murkowski went on to defeat Democrat Tony Knowles, the state's ex-Governor, in the next election cycle (oh, and the other frontrunner for the appointment at the time? Ben Stevens, the son of convicted felon/Senator Ted Stevens. Seriously).
So will the Blagojevich scandal shine enough of a spotlight on Senatorial appointments to force reforms in the system? Maybe. Illinois legislators will scramble for a way to deny Blagojevich the right, to be sure. But in the meantime, Ted Kaufman will warm Beau Biden's Senate seat, and Caroline Kennedy will probably give Andrew Cuomo and co. the heave-ho. Which begs the question: In a country that elects thousands of officials every couple of years, would it kill us to go out and elect just a couple more?