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Rod's Law? Skip it

In the wake of the Blagojevich scandal, lawmakers are pushing a constitutional amendment that would require a special election to select a temporary replacement for a senator. We really don't need it.

April 02, 2009

Call it Rod's Law. Appropriately outraged over former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich's foiled plan to sell the Senate seat vacated by Barack Obama -- and by Blagojevich's success in filling the vacancy anyway -- some members of Congress have proposed a change in the U.S. Constitution that would strip even honest governors of the authority to name temporary senators.

The amendment, sponsored in the Senate by Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.), John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Mark Begich (D-Alaska), is well-intentioned but unnecessary. An amendment to the Constitution ought to address a serious and enduring problem with the nation's charter. This proposal fails that test by a mile. It also would have the perverse effect of halving a state's representation in the Senate while a special election could be organized.

Supporters insist that there's more to the proposal than a belated slap on the wrist for Blagojevich, who outfoxed his critics by appointing the unimpressive Roland Burris to Obama's seat before being ousted from office himself. Feingold notes that there have been 184 Senate appointments -- but to arrive at that figure, he had to go back nearly a century. He also points out that there are now four unelected senators who will serve until the next general election, but that statistic too is alarmist.

Like the coincidental clustering of airline crashes in a short period of time, the fact that four incumbents left the Senate after the 2008 election is a freakish occurrence from which no lasting lesson can be drawn. Two of that number, President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, were the first U.S. senators to share a winning national ticket since 1960. The other two -- Hillary Rodham Clinton and Ken Salazar -- resigned to join Obama's Cabinet, the first time a new president has raided the Senate for his Cabinet since 1993, when President Clinton chose Lloyd Bentsen as Treasury secretary. (George W. Bush's original Cabinet included two former senators who had lost reelection bids.)

States already are free to decide that the voters should select a temporary replacement for a senator who has resigned or died. The 17th Amendment, enacted in 1913, permits but doesn't require the states to vest that responsibility in the governor. If Illinois, or any other state, is moved by the Blagojevich scandal to tie the hands of future governors, the current U.S. Constitution is no impediment. If Feingold and his allies want to amend it, they need to find a better reason.

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