Commentary Magazine


Who Knew The 17th Amendment Was Such A Good Idea?

The Seventeenth Amendment, providing for the direct election of senators, was ratified almost a hundred years ago. Since then, it’s had its ups and downs. For every Everett Dirksen, there’s been a Ted Stevens. But we generally have gotten along on the theory that these rather powerful people should be popularly elected.

Not so much this year. We have seats filled or to be filled by Governors in Delaware (by Joe Biden’s staffer to keep the seat warm for Biden’s son), New York (where the frontrunner is the princess who has everything, so why not a senate seat?), Illinois ( if they can figure out how to hold out long enough to impeach Blago first), and now Colorado ( the brother of the current senator is the frontrunner — I kid you not). This isn’t a good idea for lots of reasons. ( I admit this against all self-interest since this is pure comedy and journalistic gold.)

Let’s put aside the Blago/criminality element, well sort of. The appointment by a governor of a senator creates a relationship in which the latter is entirely beholden to the former, even more so than a normal senator would be to a governor of the same party. There need not be an explicit quid pro quo to realize that there’s virtually nothing that appointee won’t do for the governor — be it judges, policies, waivers of federal requirements, bailouts and the like. And because of the circumstances of the appointment the suspicion will always be, regardless of the merits, that the governor is pulling the strings.

Then there are the candidates themselves. With an appointment, there is no winnowing in primaries or vetting in elections. Whatever we don’t know about them we won’t find out until they are in office. Whatever faults they have will be sprung upon the voters only after they are sworn in. This is especially fraught with peril when the appointee is someone who never held elective office.

You only need look at the choices this year to know that this is cronyism at its worse. A Biden staffer holding out for Biden’s son? You must be joking! The daughter of a president, sponsored by the uncle senator who’s greatest public contribution is carrying the torch of her troubled family? We owe George III an apology for all those royalty cracks, if this one slips through. Almost by definition these picks aren’t the most meritorious; they are the most connected. They had to be to get the nod.

Republicans are certainly licking their chops at the chance to run in 2010 against the related and the anointed. The very circumstances of these individuals’ elevation will raise many voters’ ire.

So what to do? All the open seats should be filled by special election. And if the money is tight in states, that’s one bailout of federal money I’d favor. Spending money on democratic elections seems about the best use of the taxpayers money one can imagine. As we see, the alternative is an embarrassment.