Once again the question of how to fill vacancies in the U.S. Senate has been brought to public notice. In Massachusetts Ted Kennedy is terminally ill with brain cancer, though it remains uncertain how much longer he'll live. His office has released the text of a letter Kennedy wrote earlier this summer calling on the Massachusetts legislature to revise the state law regarding Senate vacancies. The law currently mandates a special election, but the vote can't take place until at least five months after the seat becomes vacant. Kennedy believes that this would leave the state, not to mention the Democratic party, without its full representation in the Senate at a crucial moment for progressive legislation. He recommends giving the governor the power to fill the vacancy by appointment prior to a special election. Here's more information about the story.
The governor of Massachusetts had the power Kennedy asks for him until 2004. In that year, the state's junior Senator, John Kerry, had a good chance of becoming President. His election would create a vacancy, but the Democratic majority in the legislature didn't like the idea of the vacancy being filled by Governor Mitt Romney, a Republican. So they enacted the present law with the special-election provision. But now the governor is Deval Patrick, a Democrat, and the party is more worried about the lack of a Senator to maintain the "filibuster-proof" majority in Washington D.C.
Thus partisanship makes a farce out of lawmaking. The law was changed for partisan advantage, but the change will last only as long as it continues to benefit the party. That last sentence looks like I was describing the Soviet Union or some other Bolshevik state, but if that's an extreme comparison the fact remains that this particular law has become a plaything of parties. Added to the follies of Illinois and New York over the past year, the Bay State episode is more evidence for the necessity of a federal constitutional amendment setting down a single rule for filling Senate vacancies. I fail to see how any state's peculiar interests are enhanced by making up rules as it pleases as it goes along. The sort of amendment I propose should not be seen as a new assault on states' rights, but as a check on partisanship manipulation of law. While there are people today who claim that the major political parties are integral parts of the American system of checks and balances in government, it's past time people began to consider whether the nation needs checks on partisanship itself in its decadent form: the American Bipolarchy.