Brown Win In Massachusetts Shows Urgent Need To Reform Senate Politics
Scott Brown’s shocking victory to succeed the Lion (or Lyin’) of the Senate, Edward M. Kennedy, shows that the voters are in a panic, and justifiably so. While they are losing their jobs, homes, savings and future, their money and credit was used to bail out the banks, bankers and auto companies, the institutions arguably most responsible for the current economic crisis.
The real problem lies deeper, in the structure of politics, the two party system and most specifically the United States Senate. Most senators were selected by state legislatures until the Seventeenth Amendment to the Constitution was ratified on April 8, 1913. Unlike the House of Representatives, the appointment power has been preserved in the Governor’s power to appoint replacements in the event of a vacancy.
Since Barack Obama’s win last year, four senate seats have become vacant: Obama’s in Illinois, Hillary Clinton’s in New York, Ted Kennedy’s in Massachusetts and Ken Salazar’s in Colorado. All four were filled by appointment. Massachusetts voters were just the first to be given an opportunity to go to the polls and fill the vacancy, and that circumstance in itself is an example of what is wrong with the process.
Obama’s seat was filled by Roland W. Burris, the first black to be elected to statewide office in Illinois. He was elected Controller in 1978 and Attorney General in 1990, but has unsuccessfully sought statewide office four times since. Governor Rod Blagojevich appointed Burris to the Senate seat vacated by Obama, precipitating a scandal that resulted in his own indictment and resignation from office.
In New York, Hillary Clinton’s seat was filled by Kirstin Gillibrand, the daughter of well-connected political operatives from the upstate New York Capital area. Kirstin, an attorney, was in her second term in the U.S. House of Representatives. John F. Kennedy’s daughter, Caroline, had been considered a contender for the seat, which had been held by her uncle, Robert Kennedy, before he was assassinated in 1968.
Gillibrand was appointed by Governor David Paterson, who succeeded to the office in the wake of a call-girl scandal that removed Eliot Spitzer from office. (We won’t comment on the coincidence of scandals involving the governors of the two states which the major Democratic candidates for president in 2008, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, represented in the Senate. The misuse of prosecution for political purposes is another serious systemic problem, one in which Martha Coakley was on the wrong side.) Anyway, Paterson himself is the son of Basil Paterson, a long time state Senator from Manhattan. So, instead of New York getting a national or international figure to fill the vacancy left by Hillary Clinton’s appointment as Secretary of State, it gets an upstate political hack appointed by a downstate political hack. After Gillibrand’s appointment, Patterson’s ratings nosedived.
Ken Salazar’s seat was filled by Michael Bennet, Denver’s School Superintendent. Bennet and his father ran unsuccessfully for a variety of elected offices, but have been appointed to many, rising easily through the ranks of the Democratic Party. While Bennet is certainly a high quality person, it is rare that anyone who has never before been elected to public office can win a Senate seat.
And finally, we come to the vacancy created by the death of Edward Kennedy. In 2004, when Massachusetts Senator John Kerry was the Democratic nominee for president, the Massachusetts legislature passed a bill, overriding the Governor’s veto, providing for a special election to fill the vacancy, in order to deny Republican Governor Mitt Romney the opportunity to fill the seat if Kerry won the White House. But once Ted Kennedy got his brain tumor, and Obama was in the White House, Democrats began to worry about what would happen to the health care bill if Kennedy, the 60th Democratic vote, died before passage.
So, to ensure continuity of representation in the Senate, something not cared about when a Kerry vacancy was contemplated, the Massachusetts legislature obligingly reinstated the appointment process because the Governor’s office was now in the hands of Democrat Duval Patrick. Furthermore, Kennedy wanted the new appointment legislation to provide that the appointee could not seek the office in the Special Election, to mimic the process by which President John F. Kennedy’s seat had been held open for Teddy in 1962. After JFK became president, Governor Foster Furcolo, a Democrat, appointed family friend Ben Smith to fill the seat. This was because Ted did not turn 30, the age of eligibility for the Senate, until February 22, 1962. Kennedy political careers were family affairs, Jack was president, Bobby was appointed Attorney General, and actually father Joe, who bankrolled the whole affair, insisted that Teddy get something, too.
The problem with the new appointment legislation that Kennedy sought was that it is the United States Constitution that determines the eligibility for Senate, and a provision in the appointment law mandating that the appointed Senator could not seek the office in the Special Election would be unconstitutional. So, the Massachusetts legislature, which is overwhelmingly Democratic and runs unopposed, dutifully reinstated the appointment provision and the Governor filled the seat with Paul Kirk, Jr., a Kennedy staffer, personal friend, former Democratic National Committee Chairman and co-chairman of the Commission on Presidential Debates, the august body that is the primary mechanism for fixing presidential elections in favor of the Republicans and Democrats by routinely excluding independent candidates from the forum. Kirk, naturally, promised not to seek the seat for himself if appointed.
So, the United States is at war and in the midst of the worst economic crisis in three generations. What is the response of the Republican and Democratic parties? It’s politics as usual. Three senate seats held by national and even international figures: Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and Edward Kennedy; have been replaced by Roland Burris, Kirstin Gillibrand and Paul Kirk, Jr. The latters are not statespeople, they are political hacks par excellence. And that is the real reason voters are angry. Both the Democrats and the Republicans put partisan political interest, the need to retain political power, ahead of all other considerations. As the electorate becomes increasingly independent, given that the two parties have structured the political system to unfairly exclude independent candidates, then it is more essential than ever that they work together for the good of the country. The opposite is currently the case.
Furthermore, having had to swallow the rigged 2000 presidential election where Nader and Buchanan were excluded from the debates and the loser installed in office because of a “uniform standard” argument, the Senate in its own operations gives 50% more weight to those who vote “No” than to those who vote “Yes”. The filibuster rules in the senate mean effectively that 60 votes are needed for passage of legislation. Why? This is another vestige of slavery and Jim Crow America. As the nation expanded in the nineteenth century, the filibuster rule and the 60 vote override provision was needed to give the South a veto in order to preserve segregation. What ever happened to majority rule?
So, the real meaning of the Massachusetts upset election is that the two party system is broken. Obama ran on a platform of change, but all he did was change the personnel without any real change in domestic policy. Even though people want health care reform and cost reduction, clearly this was not the major domestic issue facing the United States in 2008. Ironically, only by giving the Republicans more power, against a backdrop of anti-incumbent anger, can the voters try to get them to cooperate with the administration, instead of just finger point and oppose.
One thing is undeniable. The Massachusetts voters are saying that they are scared and angry. That the nation is in trouble and the political classes are acting like everything is ok. This is an emergency for the voters who are fearful of losing their jobs, and if they lose their jobs you can bet that the politicians, whether Republican or Democrat, will lose theirs until the economy gets fixed.
And just in case anyone thinks this is an aberration, the Massachusetts Special Senate election results are almost identical to the Governor’s races in Virginia and New Jersey that were held in November. Republicans Scott Brown got 1,168,107 votes, Chris Christie got 1,174,445 votes and Robert McDonnell received 1,163,523. The states are similar in size, with 4.2 million voters in Massachusetts, 5.2 million in New Jersey, and 4.7 million in Virginia. The Democrat losers got 1,058,682; 1,087,731 and 818,909 respectively. It is not easy to get a more uniform result than this. At the moment, public office is a poisoned chalice.
Return to Institute of Election Analysis Home Page