More Quitters (R-Fla., R-Tex.)

// Published August 11, 2009 in Washington Post

WITH THE ANNOUNCED resignations of Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.) and Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.), we are compelled to lodge a complaint and identify -- once again -- a problem their sudden departures reveal. First, the complaint.

Would-be officials campaign on the understanding that they will do their best to serve their constituents for the length of their terms -- and feel honored to do so. When they quit early to further their ambitions or to pad their bank accounts, or simply because they've lost interest, they dishonor their positions and diminish themselves. It's arguably better, we suppose, for Ms. Hutchinson to be out of office than missing most of her votes as she gears up her gubernatorial primary challenge against Gov. Rick Perry (R-Tex.). There's not even an argument, that we can see, for politicians who simply give up on their constituents, as did former Alaska governor Sarah Palin (R). She called it quits over the Fourth of July weekend, 18 months before the end of her first term, citing family and ethics probes as her reasons. Mr. Martinez explained Friday that he just wanted to return to his family and to Florida. They join a Quitters Hall of Fame that includes former Senate majority leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), who left in December 2007 to mine gold on K Street as a lobbyist, and former representative Albert R. Wynn (D-Md.), who bolted from his seat last year, three months after losing a primary challenge to now-Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.).

As for the problem: Voters should decide who will represent the departed senators in Washington. But in Florida, Gov. Charlie Crist (R), himself a candidate for the Senate nomination, will appoint a caretaker until the 2010 election. And even though there will be a special election in May 2010, Mr. Perry gets to pick a seat-filler for Ms. Hutchison, whose term expires in 2012. They will join appointed senators from Illinois (in President Obama's old seat) Delaware (Vice President Biden's), New York (Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton) and Colorado (Interior Secretary Ken Salazar). Altogether, 26.6 percent of the nation's population will be represented by a senator no one voted for.

Rep. Aaron Schock (R-Ill.) and Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) agree there's something wrong with this picture, but they have different remedies. Mr. Schock proposes a law mandating a special election within 90 days of an announced Senate opening. The bill hasn't gained traction, in part because of questions about its constitutionality. Mr. Feingold's pursuit of a special-election constitutional amendment awaits consideration by the Judiciary Committee.