When the 111th Congress opens on Tuesday, we should be in for plenty of entertainment. Roland Burris, the senate pick from corrupt Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich is supposed to be showing up, but will be barred from taking office. We also hear that Al Franken, not yet certified by Minnesota’s secretary of state, in an election process that is still pending, might also try to take a seat.
It is likely that Caroline Kennedy (she used be called Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg, although some sources say that she never took her husband’s name) will be appointed senator by New York’s Governor Paterson, himself brought to office upon the resignation of Eliot Spitzer. It is worth noting that Ted Kennedy, while duly elected in 1962, was aided significantly in his senatorial quest by his brother JFK.
Upon JFK’s election in 1960, and his senate seat becoming vacant, he persuaded Massachusetts Governor Foster Furcolo (himself indicted on bribery charges later dropped) to appoint JFK friend Benjamin Smith to the seat. However, the deal was for Smith to resign in 1962, when Ted became 30 years old, and a special election was then held.
More recently, Alaska’s Senator Lisa Murkowski was appointed by her father the governor in 2002, but was elected in her own right in 2004.
All of the above fun and games were facilitated by the seventeenth amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1913. At our country’s founding, the senate was meant to act as a sort of ambassadorial body, whereby the states would have influence over Federal activities. As originally intended, the senators were appointed by the state legislatures.
This would change to direct election, along with the provision for governor’s appointments by the 17th amendment, against a backdrop of muckraking, yellow journalism, and woefully misguided progressive “reforms.” After all, this was the era of supposed super-baddie John D. Rockefeller, loved by consumers, but hated by socialists and competitors.
In an era of little social justice, corporations were an easy target, and this helped sell newspapers. Still, it was hard to ignore Rockefeller’s influence. The price of kerosene dropped from 58 to 8 cents per gallon. It now only cost about 1 cent per hour to light a small home. Thousands of jobs were created, based on all the new products he developed. Too bad they don’t teach that in high school history.
One favorite muckraker was David Graham Phillips, whose 1906 series “The Treason of the Senate,” along with corruption trials and removal of Senators John H. Mitchell (R-OR) [Mitchell died before the proceedings were complete, but he was going down] and Joseph R. Burton (R-KS) would do much to advance the cause of direct election of senators.
While Phillips is still lauded in some quarters, even reform-minded president Theodore Roosevelt, who would later support direct election, condemned his reliance on innuendo and exaggeration. In Phillips’ view, any senator connected to any business interest was virtually by definition corrupt and thus “treasonous.”
Which brings us back to our current situation. Not counting southern senators who were expelled during the Civil War era, only two senators were actually kicked out or resigned prior to the 17th amendment, while four were censured. and this covers the time frame 1797-1913. After the amendment, four left office, and five were censured. As such, it looks like we are doing a bit worse on the new system.
At any rate, given the incredible amounts of money now required for any election campaign, and the prohibitive advantages of incumbency, not to mention our present situation, direct election of senators is an idea whose time has gone.