Since the Seventeenth Amendment to the Constitution was ratified nearly 100 years ago, Americans have directly elected the two U.S. senators from their home state by popular vote.
Except when they haven't.
At this moment, residents of five states – well over 50 million Americans – are partly represented in the Senate by a lawmaker who has never won a Senate election. At 2:15pm ET today, when Carte Goodwin is sworn in as the next senator from the state of West Virginia, that number will increase by another 1.8 million citizens.
Each of the current unelected senators was appointed by his or her states’ governor to fill a vacancy in the wake of a senator’s departure due to death, early retirement, or departure for another job in government. Goodwin of West Virginia will join Sens. Roland Burris of Illinois, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Michael Bennet of Colorado, Ted Kaufman of Delaware, and George LeMieux of Florida on the list of this year’s appointees. Former Sen. Paul Kirk, D-Mass., served for less than four months before being replaced by Sen. Scott Brown, who won a January special election to replace the late Sen. Ted Kennedy.
Appointments are not unusual. According to Senate Historian Don Ritchie, there have been 188 appointments to the Senate since 1913. The current Congress’s seven appointments isn’t even close to the record: During the 79th Congress, between 1945-47, a total of 14 senators were appointed.
Many one-time appointees went on to famed careers in the Senate. Sen. Sam Ervin of North Carolina, appointed in 1954, chaired the Senate committee that investigated the Watergate scandal that toppled Richard Nixon’s presidency. Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska, appointed in 1968, exited Congress as one of of the longest-serving senators in history when he was defeated for re-election 40 years later.
Still, some observers and lawmakers are raising alarms about several recent appointments, which have bred political squabbling and – in the case of the appointment of a new Illinois senator by former Gov. Rod Blagojevich – criminal allegations. Blagojevich is accused of attempting to sell the Senate seat vacated by President Barack Obama to the highest bidder.
“The way some of these situations were handled was alarmingly undemocratic and included behind-the-scenes deal-making that left voters out in the cold,” Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wisc., said bluntly last year.
Less extreme than Blagojevich’s high-profile corruption case, but still troubling to reform-minded lawmakers like Feingold, is the perception that appointees are merely keeping the seats warm for future candidates.
Over the last 100 years, over 60 percent of appointed senators have chosen to run for a full term in that seat. (Their success rate isn’t stellar, however. Only half of those candidates won their bids, compared to the three-quarters of all Senate incumbents who won re-election over the same period of time.)
But of the seven senators appointed in this session of Congress, only two are expected to even try to keep their jobs.
Goodwin is not one of them. Soon to be the newest U.S. senator, Goodwin was tapped by West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin to fill the seat left empty when Democrat Robert Byrd died earlier this year. The 36-year-old former Manchin aide has said he won't run for the seat, and his onetime boss announced today that he will himself seek it this fall.
Republican George LeMieux of Florida was similarly chosen by a former employer now angling for a run at his job. Gov. Charlie Crist is now running as an independent for the same seat he gave LeMieux, his former chief of staff, in August 2009.
It’s worth noting that so-dubbed “seat warming” is also not a new phenomenon. Sen. Ted Kennedy was too young to step into his brother’s Senate seat when John F. Kennedy won the presidency in 1960, so family friend Benjamin Smith II took over the seat for two years until the young Kennedy was eligible to run in the special election.
Appointing the widow of a male senator who has died in office has also been a fairly common practice.
Feingold, whose home state of Wisconsin is one of a handful that does not allow gubernatorial appointments, hopes to one day overhaul the appointment system, which he says “undermines representative government.”
He has proposed a constitutional amendment that would mandate special elections in the wake of Senate vacancies.
The amendment has bipartisan support, with co-sponsorship fromRepublican Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Democrat Sen. Mark Begich of Alaska, but it has been stalled in the Senate Judiciary Committee since last year. And passing a constitutional amendment is a very heavy lift; it would require the approval of two-thirds of both houses of Congress as well as three-fourths of state legislatures.