Filling Senate vacancies

Share via

Recent news stories have outlined two routes that governors might follow to fill their home states’ vacancies in the U.S. Senate: They can pick someone with a beloved family name, as New York Gov. David Paterson has reportedly been considering with political scion Caroline Kennedy, or they can try to put the seat up for sale, as a federal prosecutor alleged was the case with Illinois Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich.

We’d like to suggest a third possibility: Select someone with the wisdom, talent and experience to serve in the world’s greatest deliberative body.

Oddly, this seems to be a novel concept. Kennedy is an attorney and author, and she has seats on a handful of government and political commissions, but her name would never have surfaced as a replacement for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York (on Clinton’s expected confirmation as secretary of State) were she not the daughter of a slain president.


Yes, Clinton herself came to the Senate on a president’s coattails. But that was a decision made by voters, and their well-calculated gamble paid off with a first-rate senator, a worthy presidential candidate and an appointee to the top Cabinet post. It’s neither patronage nor nepotism when the people make such a choice. New Yorkers may elect politicians based on political pedigree, Californians may elect them on box-office receipts, but that’s their prerogative. Governors should be made of sterner stuff, especially when naming U.S. senators.

State lawmakers formerly awarded Senate seats, but those days of cronyism ended with ratification of the 17th Amendment in 1913. Now appointments result only from vacancies and last only until elections. Think of Hubert “Happy” Hopper, the fictional governor from “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” who appointed the naive and presumably easy-to-sway Jefferson Smith. Smith proved incorruptible.

But that was a movie. Hopper’s actions were saintly when compared with real-world allegations against Blagojevich, charged Tuesday with conspiring to sell the Senate seat that becomes vacant when Barack Obama takes the presidential oath.

In Delaware, the governor will reportedly name an aide to Vice President-elect Joe Biden to replace Biden in the Senate. Ted Kaufman is no more inspired a choice, but no less inspired either, than John Seymour, the little-remembered senator appointed by California Gov. Pete Wilson in 1991. And if Kaufman is widely seen as a place-holder for Biden’s son, who is expected to run in two years, that’s up to the people of Delaware. In the meantime, there’s no good reason to fill the coming three Senate vacancies with anyone but the most qualified to serve.