The appointment of Representative Kirsten Gillibrand to New York’s recently vacated Senate seat is an opportunistic move to be sure. The choice isn’t personally opportunistic to the extent it would have been if Governor Paterson had appointed Attorney General Andrew Cuomo—considered to be his likely primary opponent in 2010—or if he pulled a Blago and tried to use his power for monetary gain. Instead, the selection is geared toward ensuring that a strong Democratic candidate will defend the seat during the next election cycle.
Gillibrand won her reelection in November by a margin of 62% to 38% over her Republican challenger in a traditionally conservative district. She had an Americans for Democratic Action rating of 70% in 2008, which makes her more conservative than many Democratic officeholders—the House of Representatives average was 89%—but still puts her closer to the left than to the center, despite a perfect voting record in the eyes of the NRA. Paterson has chosen a replacement who has a proven record of working for the people of New York, with a good chance of getting herself reelected in her own right come the end of the term. This would help Democrats hold onto their majority in Congress, and polls have shown that the selection has found considerable support statewide including in the more conservative upstate districts.
To consider the differing treatment of Caroline Kennedy and Timothy Geithner sexist is to miss the forest for the trees. What is illustrated is that the governor of New York holds a different standard of what constitutes personal conduct worthy of disqualification from public office than the United States Senate does in its own approval processes for the appointees of President Obama.
And this is the problem.
While the ongoing Rod Blagojevich imbroglio has make painfully clear the problem writ small with the appointment process—a corrupt governor able to work the system for the benefit of his bank account—the Kennedy case highlights a problem writ large. The 17th Amendment, in granting the people the power to elect their own senators, retained one component of the prior system of appointment by state legislatures, the power of the governor to select someone to serve out the rest of the term in the event of vacancy barring legislation to the contrary. House vacancies are filled by special election, and some states have passed laws calling for the same in the case of the Senate. But in the majority of states it’s still a possibility that one person could pick someone to represent the interests of an entire state, retaining a profoundly undemocratic element in the selection of the most powerful body of lawmakers in the land. This flaw is significantly magnified when the incoming presidential administration takes four senators with it.
Concluding, Josh wrote:
If the only people who can make it to elected office, by appointment or election, are (a) those who have been previously elected or (b) those who seem most like us Average Joes, then we’re at serious risk of dangerously limiting our pool of potential candidates. I want the people working on policy, especially right now, to be freaking geniuses…
It’s impossible to say how Caroline Kennedy would have performed as a United States Senator. She has had an impressive career in her own right, and could very well have brought fresh, new ideas to Capitol Hill at a time when we desperately need them. But these are the kind of ideas that tend to be promulgated and developed through a competitive electoral campaign and time in government. Without such a clear record, a governor would only be opening himself up for intense criticism during a period of war and economic turmoil if he picked anyone except an experienced politician, one who is well-versed in the legislative process and knows how to get results for New York and the country at large. Caroline Kennedy could yet be a senator, but if this happens, it will only be by the only means New Yorkers can decide on the candidate best for their state: a democratic election.
Good political ideas can come from people of all backgrounds. And given the bias toward political experience in vacancy appointments, this is another argument for eliminating the appointment authority of governors in favor of special elections. The topic of constitutional amendment has come up from time to time in recent years, but almost exclusively on the part of reactionaries trying to push through a nationwide ban of abortion or gay marriage.
When it comes to holding elections for Senate seats in all circumstances, Congress and the American people should give serious thought to making them the constitutional rule, and so doing enhance the vibrancy of our democracy. Through the electoral process, more outsiders will be able to enter into politics, bringing a diversity of experiences and worldviews than can only benefit our deliberative branch of government.
Of course, such elections would give overwhelming preference to the exorbitantly wealthy, who are able to independently finance their own Senate run, but that is a topic for another day.