Senatorial Succession in Massachusetts 3.0

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August 21, 2009 by D Stack

Ted Kennedy. Good senator, but a bad date.

– Denis Leary

I tend to share Denis Leary’s sentiments about Ted Kennedy. Politically, I’m an advocate of universal health care and incorporating a public option. Ted Kennedy was a  supporter of No Child Left Behind, which, as a general rule, I am in support of. As far as the Chappaquiddick incident… Well I doubt I’d have escaped with just a suspended license had I been the driver that night.

There’s been a bit of activity in Massachusetts over the past week with a letter that Senator Kennedy sent to Governor Patrick advocating that Massachusetts law be changed to empower the governor to appoint a temporary successor until a permanent one can be chosen by election. Referenced is the need for Massachusetts to maintain two senators representing the commonwealth in the US Senate. With the universal health care measures coming up for vote and Senator Kennedy suffering from brain cancer the idea is to ensure a Democratic vote. The current Massachusetts law leaves the seat for 145 to 160 days until a special state-wide election can be held.

Seems to make some sense. The problem is Massachusetts law used to be a lot like that. Up until 2004 Massachusetts law gave the governor the power to appoint an interim senator until the next state-wide election – which occur every even year, since all representatives are up for re-election. But the Massachusetts legislature changed the law in 2004, taking away that power from the governor, wanting to put it in the hands of the people. Why the change? Well, one would imagine it had something to do with Senator John Kerry running for president as a Democrat while Governor Mitt Romney was a Republican.

So yes, you have a case of first-rate hypocricy. As a general principle, I think it makes sense to have the governor have the power to appoint interim senators. But I strongly dislike the blatant politics in these manuevers. Yes, politicians tend to be political. But this removes any pretense of looking out for the best interests of the citizens of Massachusetts.

One thing people outside Massachusetts might not realize is just how Democratic this state is. The state legislature is overwhelmingly Democratic. The Massachusetts State House has about a 90% Democratic majority. The Massachusetts Senate has a fractionally smaller Democratic majority, around 88%. This has a tendency of putting most power in the hands of the state legislature, regardless of the party affiiliation of the governor – the majority leaders, provided they have control over their members (which they tend to) can easily override the veto of a governor.

So that leads one to wonder… Should the succession law be changed, would it be changed again should a Republican governor again be elected (though the legislature tends to be dominated by Democrats, Republicans held the governor’s office from 1991 to 2007)? Probably not, unless there was a possibility that succession would go from theoretical to likely.

While I certainly lean on the liberal axis, this showcases the dangers of single-party rule. Mind you in my opinion I think that Republicans in Massachusetts of late have tilted too close to the national party’s politics, ignoring the fact that Massachusetts is more liberal than most states. Once upon a time, it was a lot easier to find conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans. But party orthodoxy has become more extreme over the past generation – moreso for the Republicans I would submit, but it has affected both of the major American political parties.

What I would propose for Massachusetts is something I doubt we’d see. Why not ammend the state constitution such that any changes to senatorial succession laws take four years to take effect? This way you can’t change the law to benefit the current governor.

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