Lawmakers Warm to Special Elections to Fill Senate Vacancies

Posted March 11, 2009 at 1:13pm

Choosing Senate replacements by special election instead of gubernatorial appointment threatens to deter some candidates who might have difficulty raising enough money to be competitive in such a race, House and Senate lawmakers were told on Wednesday.That message came at a joint House and Senate judiciary committee hearing, where lawmakers heard testimony on whether all states should be required to hold special elections to fill Senate vacancies. The issue is ripe given that the Senate continues to wrestle with the controversial appointment of Sen. Roland Burris (D-Ill.), who was tapped by former Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) to replace President Barack Obama. Blagojevich was recently impeached from office amid charges that he tried to sell Obama’s seat to the highest bidder.Burris’ appointment got very little focus at Wednesday’s hearing, but the issue was certainly on lawmakers’ minds as they discussed the merits of special elections versus gubernatorial appointments. Pamela Karlan, a Stanford Law School professor, suggested that because special elections can be so costly for both the state and the candidate, “Congress might think about ways to defray the cost of special elections.— Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, said he feared that a Senate special election with a campaign season of just 90 days — an idea floated through House legislation — would favor millionaire and celebrity candidates.But even with that concern, “in principle the idea of elections is a good one,— Nadler said.At the hearing, Members heard testimony on the merits of amending the Constitution to change how Senate vacancies are filled. The Senate has welcomed four appointees this year alone, including Burris.Rep. David Dreier (R-Calif.), who testified alongside Rep. Aaron Schock (R-Ill.), and Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) during the hearing’s first panel, called his legislation to require special elections “a perfecting amendment— to the Constitution. “We have not proposed this amendment as a reaction to the people appointed to the Senate,— Dreier said, hinting that the bill wasn’t introduced as a reaction to the Burris saga.Dreier’s legislation is a companion to one introduced in January by Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.). Schock testified in favor of his version of the legislation that would require a special election without amending the Constitution. That approach has won favor from Sen. Ted Kaufman (D-Del.), the only appointed Senator to attend Wednesday’s joint hearing.“As one of 184 appointed United States Senators in the history of our great nation, and the only one on this committee, allow me to be clear: I do not believe Senators should be appointed,— said Kaufman, who was tapped this year to fill the seat vacated by Vice President Joseph Biden.“Changing the process of Senate appointments does not rise to the level of urgency for an amendment,— added Kaufman, who has said he will not run next year to retain his seat.Kaufman has not signed on to either version of the measure. Feingold, whose home state requires special elections for Senate vacancies, held his ground as some panelists questioned the high cost of conducting a special Senate election.“It seems odd [that] as hard as we worked to get everyone the right to vote, that some people don’t have the right when it comes to vacancies,— he said.