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  Comments (0) Total Friday Apr. 18, 2014
U.S. Senators Should be Elected, Not Appointed

Guest Commentary: Bob Brown
Most people find it hard to believe that we have not always elected our U.S. Senators, but prior to the approval of the 17th Amendment in 1913 Senators were appointed by state legislatures, and Montana was important in bringing about that change.

Copper King W.A. Clark literally bought a seat in the U.S. Senate in 1899 by flagrantly bribing members of the 1899 Montana state Legislature into voting for him. Incredibly, when an investigation forced Clark to resign, he finagled an appointment to the Senate from the acting governor, to fill the vacancy created by his own resignation. 

Clark’s example wasn’t the only one of skullduggery known or suspected in the election of senators by legislatures, but it was the most outrageous, best publicized and probably most often used in dramatizing the need for the 17th Amendment.

A problem remains, however, in Montana and many other states, when a Senate seat becomes vacant before the expiration of a senator’s term. When a vacancy occurs in the House of Representatives, the Constitution requires a special election to fill it. But the 17th Amendment leaves up to the states whether a Senate vacancy is filled by a special election of the people or by an appointee of the state’s governor.

Oregon, Oklahoma, Massachusetts and Wisconsin empower the people to directly fill Senate vacancies. Eight other states allow their governors to make interim appointments, typically for 60 or 90 days, at which time they hold a special election. In the remaining 38 states, including Montana, the decision of filling vacancies in the Senate is left entirely up to the governor.
If we trust the judgment of the people to choose their U.S. representatives in regular elections as well as in special elections when House seats become vacant, and if we trust the people to elect senators in regular elections, by what logic do we not trust them to decide who represents them when Senate seats become vacant?

Senators getting their jobs by appointment has always been a problematic part of our political system. The appointments of Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich and New York Gov. David Paterson to fill the vacancies created by the resignations of President Barack Obama in Illinois and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in New York, are the 179 and 180th such appointments since 1913. Both were characterized by self-serving gamesmanship, and in the case of Blagojevich, impeachable corruption.

In Montana, governors have appointed two senators in our state’s history, and both were quickly rejected by the people. The controversial 1933 appointee was voted out of office in 1934. The 1977 appointee was defeated by the people’s choice of Sen. Baucus in 1978.

Prompted by the Montana example, the people in all the states obtained the power nearly a century ago to regularly elect their senators. No doubt as a result of the recent spectacle in Illinois, several state’s legislatures are now considering legislation to allow their people to chose their own senators in special elections as only twelve states now do. Montana’s Legislature can be one of them.

Only a simple change would be necessary in our state law to allow Montanans to elect our senators when vacancies occur. Our Legislature is now in session and could accomplish this with the enactment of a bill submitted into the legislative process by any of its standing committees. It would be a reform consistent with the fundamental right of free people to elect those who govern them.

There is an old saying that conservatives are for reform as long as it doesn’t change anything and liberals are for change even if it doesn’t reform anything. But both liberals and conservatives believe in the principle of government by the consent of the governed. Allowing the governed to elect their own denators in all instances is a change that would bring needed reform in keeping with the core philosophies of both liberals and conservatives. 

Bob Brown is a former Montana State Senate President and Secretary of State
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