Robert Byrd served three terms in the U.S. House before beginning the 51-year Senate career that would end with his death this summer.
Had Byrd remained in the House, his death would have led to a declaration that the seat he held was vacant. That declaration would have been followed by the calling of a special election and the seat would have been filled by the voters.
That is what the U.S. Constitution – a copy of which Byrd always carried in his coat pocket – stipulates.
No one is allowed to serve in the House without first facing voters.
It is unconstitutional to appoint a member of the chamber.
Unfortunately, despite the fact that the Senate is supposed to be elected, governors have since 1913 interpreted a vague section in the Constitution’s 17th amendment (which established direct election of senators) as allowing them to fill vacancies by appointment.
As such, many senators serve without having ever faced the voters. They cast critical votes on issues of war and peace, taxation and spending and the scope and character of the federal government. Often, they cloture votes make the difference in determining whether a major matter of concern will be addressed or neglected.
Before Byrd’s death, the chamber had five unelected members – the replacements for President Obama (Illinois), Vice President Biden (Delaware), Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (New York), Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar (Colorado) and retired Senator Mel Martinez (Florida). Another unelected senator represented massachusetts for four months before a special-election was held in January of this year to replace the late Edward Kennedy.
Now, West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin has appointed his former chief counsel, Carte Goodwin, a West Virginia political hanger-on who has never held elective office and never earned a single vote for U.S. Senate from the people of the state, to replace Byrd.
Goodwin is a placeholder, who will exit the seat when the voters elect a genuine replacement for Byrd (very possibly Manchin) in November. But even though he is unelected, Goodwin will serve with all the authority and power of a senator – casting votes on extending unemployment benefits, energy policy and the extension of the misguided war in Afghanistan.
It happens that Goodwin will serve as a Democrat, and he may well cast votes that advance President Obama’s agenda (although not when it comes to the proposed cap-and-trade approach to combating climate change, which is exceptionally unpopular in West Virginia). But Goodwin’s partisanship, his ideology and his personal skills are inconsequential. He sits in the Senate solely because one man, the governor of his state, decided to put him there.
That’s wrong. In a 100-seat chamber, every seat that is held by a member who arrived without popular support or an electoral mandate shifts the balance further away from the goal of representative democracy.
No one should sit in the Senate as the appointee of a politician, especially a politician whose own interests may be advanced by the appointment.
It is time to amend the Constitution to bar the appointment of senators and to require that U.S. Senate vacancies be filled with elections – as is the case with U.S. House vacancies.
Senator Russ Feingold, the Wisconsin Democrat who chairs the Constitution subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has been leading the fight for a fully elected Senate, with support from House Judiciary Committee chair John Conyers, D-Michigan, and the ranking Republican on that committee, Texan Lamar Smith.
Feingold’s take is on the replacement of Byrd is the only small “d” democratic one – and the right one for the republic.
“Just during this Congress, over 65 million people in seven states have been represented in the Senate by someone who was never elected to the Senate, and five of the appointed Senators will have left the Senate without having faced the voters,” says the senator. “That undermines representative government. People deserve a voice in choosing the senators who represent them in Washington. The constitutional amendment I have proposed requiring the direct election of all senators is the best way to give them that voice."