Only a few weeks in the Senate, Roland Burris of Illinois has already performed a public service. He has shown why Senate vacancies should be filled in special elections, not appointed by state governors.
Gov. Rod Blagojevich's gift to Burris of Barack Obama's Senate seat prior to his own impeachment was a politically clever one. Burris's 16-year record as state comptroller and then attorney general was clean, if not particularly distinguished. And at 71, the likeable Illinois veteran did not seem an easy target for criticism.
Burris got past initial Senate resistance by conducting himself with deference yet firmness in pressing his legal claim to be seated. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and the Senate finally took the easy way out of an embarrassing dilemma by accepting his credentials and he was sworn in.
But Burris could not leave well enough alone. After having assured the Senate that he had never done anything to suggest he had been involved in Blagojevich's notions to sell the seat, he decided to tidy up the record. He put out an affidavit saying the governor's brother had talked to him about the job, and that he had discussed with others raising campaign funds for Blagojevich, but in the end never did.
The affidavit not surprisingly has triggered two new investigations into whether Burris told the truth in telling the Illinois state Senate he had never talked to any of the beleaguered governor's associates in what came to be called the pay-to-play scandal.
An earlier public outcry against the Burris appointment has now blossomed into demands for his resignation from the Senate seat he has barely had time to warm. Even Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin averred that his fellow Illinoisan had not in the original Senate review made "the full disclosure under oath" that had been sought.
In Chicago on Wednesday, at the start of a state tour to reintroduce himself to Illinois voters, Burris was besieged by reporters asking whether he intended to resign. He insisted he had done nothing wrong and had nothing to hide, citing his clean record of public service in the state "built over a lifetime."
But the furor provides new impetus for an end to the gubernatorial appointment to fill U.S. Senate vacancies, now permitted in some fashion in 28 states, and instead holding special elections. In the wake of four vacancies this year as a result of senators resigning to serve in the Obama administration, Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has introduced a constitutional amendment to require special elections, with plans to hold early hearings on it.
"The controversies surrounding some of the recent gubernatorial appointments to vacant Senate seats," Feingold said, "make it painfully clear that such appointments are an anachronism that must end. In 1913, the 17th Amendment to the Constitution gave the citizens of this country the power to finally elect their senators. They should have the same power in the case of unexpected midterm vacancies, so that the Senate is as responsive as possible to the will of the people."
The four states in which governors appointed replacement senators this year have encountered local criticism of various degrees. In addition to the Illinois fiasco over Obama's seat, Caroline Kennedy's flirtation in New York for Hillary Clinton's seat was ended only with her embarrassing withdrawal of interest and the appointment of little-known upstate Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand.
In Delaware, Joe Biden's seat went to his Senate chief of staff, Ted Kaufman, who said he would serve only until a special election in 2010, with Biden's son Beau, the state attorney general, considered a probable candidate then. And in Colorado, Ken Salazar's seat was surprisingly given to Denver school superintendent Michael Bennet.
Enactment of a constitutional amendment is a long and difficult undertaking. Meanwhile, if Burris resists the calls for his resignation, it would take a two-thirds vote to oust him. If that happened, Senate Democrats would have the comfort of knowing the new Illiniois governor, Democrat Paul Quinn, would nominate one of their own -- unless this time he were to yield to renewed calls for a special election.