American Royalty: United States Senators
Excuse me, please. I went to bed last night believing I lived in the United States of America. The last time I checked, in this country we elect those who represent us in office. Offices are not handed down from father to son or father to daughter as they are in countries ruled by monarchies. So why is our Senate being transformed into a monarchy in which seats in office are being distributed to family members or even the highest bidder?
Since Barack Obama’s election to the White House a number of Senate Seats have become open as Obama has chosen to fill cabinet positions from his former colleagues in the Senate, thus creating the vacancies. Fortunately, the Seventeenth Amendment to the Constitution provides for the appointment of Senators to fill these vacancies until the senate seat comes up for election in its normal place in the six-year election cycle.
The Seventeenth Amendment provides that “the legislature of any State may empower the executive thereof to make temporary appointments until the people fill the vacancies by election as the legislature may direct.” Some states provide a special election to fill a vacancy. A special election for a Senate seat need not be held immediately after the vacancy arises; instead, it is typically conducted at the same time as the next biennial congressional election. If a special election for one seat happens to coincide with a general election for the state’s other seat, then the two elections are not combined, but are instead contested separately. A senator elected in a special election takes office immediately and serves until the original six-year term expires, and not for a full term. Furthermore, any state legislature may empower the Governor to temporarily fill vacancies. The interim appointee remains in office until the special election can be held. The states of Alaska, Arizona, and Massachusetts do not authorize the Governor to make temporary appointments.
Lately I am of the mind that the state legislatures need to take back their power of appointment from their governors. While I would prefer a special election where the people of each state can choose in a democratic manner the replacement of their own senator, at the very least the practice of Governor Appointment has become so tainted with abuse, prejudice, and nepotism that the mechanism of Governor Appointment has turned the U.S. Senate into the British House of Lords.
This practice is nothing new, but it has become more egregious and obvious this year. Consider, World Statesman Albert Gore, Jr., winner of the Nobel Prize, was handed his Senate Seat from his father, former Senator Albert Gore, Sr. Consider, Senator Elizabeth Dole of North Carolina, former Secretary of Labor certainly had the qualifications to be a Senator, she lived in Kansas with her husband former Senator and former Presidential Candidate Bob Dole. Consider, President Bush has been quoted recently saying that his brother, former Governor of Florida would make a great U.S. Senator from Florida in 2010. Consider, Joe Biden’s son, Attorney General Beau Biden who is now serving in Iraq, is slated to replace Joe Biden as the Senator from Deleware in the election of that seat in 2010. Consider Sarah Palin, who after being defeated as the Republican Party’s Vice-Presidential Candidate, upon her return to Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski, the daughter of the former Alaskan Governor and Senator who’s seat was passed to her by Governor appointment, was quoted as telling Governor Palin that she better not think about touching “my Senate seat.” Consider Senator Ken Salazar of Colorado, who was just tapped to join Obama’s cabinet. The Governor of Colorado has said that a leading candidate to replace him is his brother, Representative John T. Salazar of Colorado. Consider, Caroline Kennedy of New York, the daughter of President John F. Kennedy, who prior to this year had completely recused herself from politics until joining the Obama campaign. Suddenly she wants the Senate Seat of Hillary Clinton that Senator Clinton must relinquish to become Secretary of State? And although she refused answering any questions in a press conference in Syracuse New York today, she believes she should simply be named Senator by the Governor of New York? And finally consider Governor Rod Blagojevich of Illinois, who is being accused of trying to sell Barack Obama’s own Senate Seat. But what the press have not covered is that Governor Blagojevich, as distasteful as his actions are, are virtually no less distasteful then any governor of any state who feels he or she has the right to simply pass along a UNITED STATES SENATE SEAT to a relative of someone else who has held the office. In the United States, property is handed down from generation to generation, not positions of power. If we wanted royalty and a monarchy in this country our founding fathers would have established a monarchy of our own. But such was not the case, and George Washington was adamant about refusing any titles of nobility Congress sought to convey, accepting the sole title of “Mr. President.” So how is the Senate circumventing the people of this country and conferring virtual titles of nobility in the guise of “Senator” to its own?
Mostly, because they can. According to our Constitution, there really are no qualifications to be a United States Senator. Article I, Section 3 of the Constitution sets three qualifications for United States Senators:
1) each senator must be at least 30 years old, 2) must have been a citizen of the United States for at least the past nine years, and 3) must be (at the time of the election) an inhabitant of the state they seek to represent. The age and citizenship qualifications for senators are more stringent than those for representatives. In Federalist No. 62, James Madison justified this arrangement by arguing that the “senatorial trust” called for a “greater extent of information and stability of character.”
The Senate (not the judiciary) is the sole judge of a Senator’s qualifications. During its early years, however, the Senate did not closely scrutinize the qualifications of members. As a result, three Senators that were constitutionally disqualified due to age were admitted to the Senate: Henry Clay (aged 29 in 1806), and Armistead Thomson Mason (aged 28 in 1816) and John Eaton (aged 28 in 1818). Such an occurrence, however, has not been repeated since. In 1934, Rush D. Holt, Sr. was elected to the Senate at the age of 29; he waited until he turned 30 to take the oath of office. Likewise, Joe Biden was elected to the Senate shortly before his 30th birthday in 1972; he had passed his 30th birthday by the time the Senate conducted its swearing-in ceremony for that year’s electees in January 1973.
Shocking, isn’t it? Under our Constitution, virtually anyone can be a United States Senator. So when given the power to appoint, as most of the U.S. Governors have been given, why not appoint a relative, or even yourself to one of the highest offices in the land? The rub, of course, being that once a Senator is appointed to the office, he or she becomes an incumbent. And it’s a daunting challenge indeed to unseat any incumbent from a United States Senate Seat.
That is why the state legislatures must take back their power of appointment. As Governor Blagojevich has demonstrated, whether he be proven guilty or innocent, the thought of selling a Senate Seat on ebay is unthinkable, but that’s the joke on us that has been circling the world. A governor of a state should not be in the business of creating, enhancing, or offering up for highest bidder a political dynasty, but that is exactly the de facto practice that has been put in place.
What has been lost is the sense of honor of a very prestigious body of United States statesmen and women. When elected to political office, the elected man or woman should have, as Sarah Palin correctly said, “a servant’s heart.” All political offices are positions of service to the American people, and as such, they belong to the American people. They can not be characterized as “my Senate seat,” the way Lisa Murkowski of Alaska characterized her seat. Lisa Murkowski serves the people of the state of Alaska, not her own self-interest. Or at least, that’s how it should be.
Should Caroline Kennedy be “given” Hillary Clinton’s seat which she earned by serving as First Lady and campaigned vigorously in New York to win the Senate election, Caroline Kennedy will need to display a servant’s heart. Yes, she will be loved as the daughter of JFK, but being the daughter of a President does not qualify you for office and the office should not be given to her because she’s the daughter of a former President. No more than Governor Blagojevich should be allowed to reap any kind of personal gain from his appointment to Barack Obama’s open Senate Seat. Whether by nepotism or sale, both ways of acquiring political power are equally repugnant and should be rejected by Americans.
Thanks for reading.
-Matthew S. Urdan
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