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Posted by on Feb 20, 2009 in Politics | 4 comments

Is This a Way to Avoid Future Roland Burrises?

Even if Roland Burris did nothing wrong to obtain former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich’s interim appointment to the United States Senate, Blagojevich’s corruption would have Burris facing his constituents through a cloud of suspicion.

Wisconsin’s senator, Russ Feingold, has a proposal that might prevent future Roland Burris-style imbroglios. But, a little background is in order.

The US Constitution, of course, originally stipulated that senators be elected by their state’s legislatures, a measure reflecting the Framer’s belief that the upper chamber of the US Congress should be composed of wealthy, landed, mature men not susceptible to direct influence from voters. (While being believers in a Republic, the Framers viewed pure Democracy warily, proving that while they were great, they weren’t perfect.)

The direct election of US Senators was instituted with the ratification of the Seventeenth Amendment in 1913. But the amendment, while allowing the election of people to fill the unexpired terms of senators who resigned or died, didn’t mandate it. It’s that loophole that allows the spectacles like the ones we’ve recently watched play out in places like Illinois and New York, where governors appointed senators.

In the late 18th-century, there was good reason for having governors pick interim senators. Communications and transportation, necessary for the administration of elections, were cumbersome and slow. Those should no longer be obstructions to directly electing interim senators. That’s why Feingold’s proposal mandating such elections nationwide is probably way overdue.

Of course, one look at the long-lasting 2008 campaign between incumbent Norm Coleman and challenger Al Franken in Minnesota will confirm that even the direct election of senators is no insurance against unseemly spectacle.

Given the realities of human nature, reforms will always struggle to outpace the ingenious methods people devise to beat whatever system that’s instituted. (Reform is always a reactive and an ongoing enterprise.) But Feingold’s proposal, which seems to reflect the opinions of many people whatever their political persuasions, would have, had it been in effect last year, probably prevented Roland Burris from becoming a United States Senator.

[This is being crossposted at my personal blog.]