Kennedy's successor: When the right thing happens for the wrong reason


There sure have been a lot of U. S, Senate vacancies in the last year -- more than I can remember than in any time in my lifetime. Some have been the result of good news for the senators involved -- the ascensions of Barack Obama, Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton to higher office -- and some have not, like last week's passing of Ted Kennedy, and then there's Mel Martinez...what the heck was that about? There's only one thing that all those vacancies have in common -- the way their successor was or will be picked was either undemocratic, or unfair to the state's residents, or both. The events of the last few months have shown that filling the unexpired terms of ex-senators is one of the most annoying problems we face today -- and yet it's also arguably the most fixable. And so there's no excuse for not fixing it -- right now!

What is taking place right now in Massachusetts is a case study in both why the system is so screwed up -- and how this problem could be solved to the benefit of the only "party" that should really matter here, the American voter. For many years, Massachusetts filled a Senate vacancy in the way that it's done now in the majority of states (including Pennsylvania). The means that the governor picks an interim senator who serves until a special election that's usually held the same day as a general election. In some cases, an unelected, interim senator can serve for a year or even longer until the voters of the state can weigh in.

When that system really gets interesting is when the governor is from a different party than the senator who leaves office (or dies). Voters might elect a liberal Democrat only to wake up one day and see him or her replaced with a conservative Republican, or vice versa, which is sort of what happened in Pennsylvania in 1991 when a Democratic governor tapped Harris Wofford to replace (actually fairly liberal) Republican John Heinz after Heinz died in a Lower Merion helicopter crash. In a surprise, Wofford then won a special election to serve the last three years of the term.

In Massachusetts in 2004, optimistic Dems thought John Kerry would win the presidency (heh) and that the liberal state's then-Republican governor Mitt Romney would replace him with a GOPer. So Democratic lawmakers did something that I find pretty sleazy and you may find sleazy too -- they changed the law to their party's advantage in that unique circumstance. Since 2004, a vacant Senate seat in Mass. is now only filled by a special electiom.

Five years later, Sen. Ted Kennedy was dying and the political realities on the ground were very different. Masschusetts has a Democratic governor now, and the Democrats in the U.S. Senate need every vote they can get this fall to enact health care reform, so the answer to Kennedy, in his last political act before his death, and to other Dems was obvious: Go back and change the law yet again, only now to benefit their party in the situation it faces in 2009.

I'm sorry, but even though -- just like the late Senator Kennedy -- I think America desperately needs a more just healthcare system, I also think that changing the law in this manner, for this reason, is a farce that in the long-run could tarnish the legitimacy of any healthcare package, no matter how worthy the outcome. A legacy of changing the Senate succession laws every few years to benefit one party is not only patently undemocratic but it would be a pretty sad tribute to Ted Kennedy's memory, even if it's something he said he wanted.

What I do find ironic is this: The system that Massachusetts is now weighing is much closer to what I think would be the perfect way to fill a U.S. Senate vacancy -- it would allow the governor to name an interim replacement, ensuring that the state would retain two votes on key legislation, but also still provide a fairly speedy special election -- within five months -- in which voters would have the final say. In other words, the proposed change would be a good thing, done for a bad reason.

That's why I'd like to see a constitutional amendment mandating how Senate vacancies are filled. Such an amendment wouldn't change the most important fact -- that voters from Alabama to Vermont can pick whatever crazy right- or left-winger they want -- but would also mean that all 100 votes on vital legislation for the entire nation would at least be created equally.

The perfect system? It probably won't happen, because at least one aspect of this would be hated by politicans, but here goes:

1) A sitting governor picks an interim replacement as soon as a vacancy occurs.

2) This is the tricky part, but I think fair: The replacement should be from the same party as the ex-senator, not necessarily the same party as the governor. What's more, the interim senator also would be barred from running in the special election, hopefully ensuring a capable, short-term caretaker.

3) A special election for the rest of the term should be held as quickly as humanly possibly, preferably within three months. C'mon folks, this is 2009, not 1849, and we don't need to notify voters by Pony Express. We have the technology for a quick special election, and as for the cost -- well, what is the cost of a flawed democracy? In my opinion, it's incalcuable.

As I said, part of this plan probably wouldn't fly (the Constitution isn't really set up to handle the concept of political parties, for one thing) but the political farce of 2009 -- with a governor indicted for trying to sell a vacant Senate seat, with a different Kennedy nearly claiming New York's seat by divine right (remember that?), and now with the Massachusetts muddle -- proves that something needs to be done, and it needs to be done quickly. The election of U.S. senators has been an ever-evolving process in this country -- direct election of senators was not mandated until the enactment of the 17th Amendment in 1911 -- and so there's no reason that a new federal amendment couldn't solve this problem for good.

Heck, you could even name it after Ted Kennedy.