Bipartisan Group Calls for End to Senate Appointments
By Ben Pershing
A motley crew of Republican and Democratic lawmakers announced Wednesday that they are backing a constitutional amendment requiring special elections be held to fill all Senate vacancies, putting an end to the gubernatorial appointments that have sparked such controversy in recent months.
Unusually for a constitutional amendment, the proposal has attracted a bipartisan, bicameral group of supporters. Joining forces at Wednesday's press conference were two Democrats -- Sen. Russ Feingold (Wis.) and House Judiciary Chairman John Conyers (Mich.) -- as well as three Republicans -- Judiciary ranking member Lamar Smith (Texas), Rules ranking member David Dreier (Calif.) and Rep. James Sensenbrenner (Wis.). The assembled members made repeated, joking "strange bedfellows" references, but they also expressed hope that the diversity of their movement boded well for its chances of success.
"We have, I think, an opportunity to gain great support ... and build great bipartisanship for this," Dreier said.
Dreier said the time for this amendment was now, after a senator was elected president for the first time in four decades, which was followed by "a great deal of respect on the part of that new president for the talent of his colleagues."
President Obama decided to pick fellow senators for the vice presidency and three Cabinet posts, resulting in a total of five vacancies that were filled by appointment. The replacement of Obama, in particular, has already become legendary for its controversy; Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) was accused by federal prosecutors of trying to sell the appointment and was eventually impeached, but only after he went ahead and named Roland Burris (D) to fill the seat.
"These appointments ... have driven home that these decisions should be in the people's hands," Feingold said, though he acknowledged that the appointed senators themselves might hesitate to back the amendment, since it could suggest their own appointments were somehow tainted.
Smith called the very existence of gubernatorial appointments of senators an "unintended constitutional consequence" of the 17th amendment. Ratified in 1913, the amendment provided for direct election of senators -- who had previously been chosen by state legislatures -- but also included language allowing states to give their governors the authority to make "temporary appointments" to vacant seats until elections could be held. Currently, just four states require special elections to fill vacancies without appointments first -- Wisconsin, Oregon, Oklahoma and Massachusetts.
Dreier acknowledged that "it is very difficult to amend the Constitution" -- the 27th amendment was ratified more than 16 years ago -- but expressed his hope, as did the other members, that this issue might garner enough bipartisan support to actually have a chance. The Senate version, which Feingold introduced last month, currently has two co-sponsors -- Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Mark Begich (D-Alaska).
Conyers and Feingold both said they planned to hold hearings in their respective committees, and might even consider having a joint House-Senate hearing on the topic.
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