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Feingold Proposes Direct Election of ALL Senators | The Nation

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John Nichols

John Nichols

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Feingold Proposes Direct Election of ALL Senators

Following New York Governor David Paterson's controversial selection of Kirsten Gillibrand to fill the U.S. Senate vacancy created by the resignation of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and with the impeachment trial of Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich for abuses of office allegedly including the bartering off of the vacant Senate seat of President Barack Obama, Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold wants to require that Senate vacancies be filled by the voters rather than individual governors.

Feingold, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, plans to introduce an amendment to the U.S. Constitution to require special elections in the event of a Senate seat vacancy.

"The controversies surrounding some of the recent gubernatorial appointments to vacant Senate seats make it painfully clear that such appointments are an anachronism that must end<" says Feingold. "In 1913, the Seventeenth Amendment to the Constitution gave the citizens of this country the power to finally elect their senators. They should have the same power in the case of unexpected mid term vacancies, so that the Senate is as responsive as possible to the will of the people."

At the founding of the United States, a system was established along the lines of that seen in Great Britain, where the U.S. House of Representatives was considered a "people's chamber" while the U.S. Senate was considered to be an elite body.

The framers required that members of the House be elected but members of the Senate were selected by state legislators. The corrupt process of legislative selection of senators -- bribes and political calculations were common -- became a focus of the progressive movement which argued for "direct election" of all members of Congress.

In the first years of the 20th century, agitation by Wisconsin Senator Robert M. La Follette and radical reformers across the country led to the enactment of the Seventeenth Amendment.

Unfortunately, the amendment was poorly written and was read as allowing Senate vacancies as the states choose. A handful of states -- Wisconsin, Oregon and Alaska, among them, require special elections, but most rely on some form of gubernatorial appointment.

The notion that senators could sit, sometimes for two years or more, at the whim of a governor, is in conflict with the intents of the direct-election campaigners.

The practice of allowing governors to appoint senators conflicts, as well, with the Constitutional requirement that House vacancies always be filled by special elections.

Thus, while no one can sit in the House without first facing the voters, the new Senate will have at least four unelected members (holding Obama's old Illinois seat, Clinton's old New York seat, Vice President Joe Biden's seat and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar's Colorado seat). Though they lack ballot-box legitimacy, those senators will be able to cast equal votes to those of their 96 elected colleagues on matters of war and peace, economic renewal and social policy.

Feingold's amendment -- which will require committee hearings, full congressional votes and then endorsements by state legislatures before it can be enacted -- won't have any impact on the current Senate. But the senator is moving at a point where there is broad concern about gubernatorial appointments with an eye toward addressing the issue so that the practice of seating unelected senators if ultimately be ended.

"I plan to introduce a constitutional amendment this week to require special elections when a Senate seat is vacant, as the Constitution mandates for the House, and as my own state of Wisconsin already requires by statute," the senator says. "As the Chairman of the Constitution Subcommittee, I will hold a hearing on this important topic soon."

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