First-term legislator Rep. Chris Fierro is set to have his first bill passage this Tuesday when the House is expected to vote on his bill (H5094) that will mandate a special election in the case of a vacancy in the office of United States Senator.
The goal of this bill – that all US Senators from Rhode Island should be elected through a direct election – is important for our representative democracy.
Currently, as it is in other states (see the recent appointments in IL, CO, DE and NY), the Governor of Rhode Island has the authority to appoint a replacement until the next General Election.
Rep. David Segal outlined the reasons for this legislation in a January 24th Op-Ed in the New York Times.
Consider this: Nearly a quarter of the United States senators who have taken office since the 17th Amendment took effect have done so via appointment. Once Representative Kirsten Gillibrand, Mr. Paterson’s choice, joins the Senate, she will be one of more than 180 senators named by governors since 1913.
By contrast, the Constitution mandates special elections for all vacancies in the House — even though representatives are far less powerful than senators.
Yet only a handful of states routinely fill vacated Senate seats by special election. The result is a tyranny of appointments.
This is bad for the legislature, and the constituents. Even when appointments are not explicitly put up for sale, a governor’s deliberations are surely informed by political expediency and personal ambition. (It would be impossible to look at the New York debacle and not think otherwise.) And even when the process is explicitly political and maybe even corrupt, as appears to be the case in Illinois, it seems as if there’s not a lot anyone can do about it. After all, the Illinois Legislature was unable to wrest power from Gov. Rod Blagojevich to force a special election.
Unfortunately, Gov. Don Carcieri (R) has signaled that he might veto this legislation if it reaches his desk:
In response to an inquiry earlier this week, Governor Carcieri stopped short of a veto threat. But spokeswoman Amy Kempe said: “In general, the governor does not believe the bill is necessary.
“The situation only arises once in a great while. There has never been a problem in Rhode Island (not to mention most other places, except with the most recent and extraordinary situation in Illinois) with the governor appointing until the next election,” she said.
Considering Carcieri’s historic support of Separation of Powers efforts in Rhode Island, his possible attempts to maintain authority over legislative appointments is surprising.