Sen. Ted Kennedy: A loss for the nation should not mean a loss for democracy

by Rob Richie // Published August 26, 2009

The remarkable outpouring of condolences for Sen. Ted Kennedy in the wake of his death last night is remarkable to see. While an unabashed liberal Democrat, Sen. Kennedy came from an older era when Members of Congress actually could get along with one another -- and reach across the aisle to get the nation's business done.

Today's Senate is one of hyperpartisanship, however, with every bill and every public pronouncement providing angles for political advantage or loss, as the tiger of the 24-hour news cycle hungrily waits to be fed with the latest partisan red meat.

In this climate, I was distressed to see Thursday's letter from Sen. Kennedy's office urging the Massachusetts state legislature to amend its 2004 law requiring special elections for U.S. Senate vacancies and instead return to an appointment for "only" five or six months until the special election could take place.

This change may sound benign, but it's inconceivable that Sen. Kennedy's office would have made this request if the state's governor were a Republican, as had been the case when the special election law was passed in 2004 and when a Republican-sponsored measure to allow temporary appointments was handily defeated in 2006. It's a blatantly partisan request - one I'm sure Kennedy's camp feels justified in making due to battles in the U.S. Senate and the out-of-control use of the 60-vote filibuster, but still one that further drags democracy down into the stench of partisan gaming of the system. FairVote issued a news release criticizing the proposal, with hard data showing just how problematic appointments are, and we were gratified to see our arguments picked up by the likes of the New York Times editorial page.

In 2005, Sen. Kennedy in fact gave a strong speech in support of preserving the integrity of the process. His speech ironically was given in opposition to weakening of the filibuster rule - a rule that FairVote criticized as undemocratic in a 2005 report and continues to criticize today. In that speech, however, Sen. Kennedy was absolutely right to say, "The vast majority of Americans’ share our commitment to basic fairness. They agree that there must be fair rules, that we should not unilaterally abandon or break those rules in the middle of the game."

It's time to stand up for democracy. Too many major party leaders treat rules governing the electoral process as mere pawns in their drive to gain advantage over their opposition. They act with disdain toward voters, seemingly forgetting that "basic fairness" must be grounded in a democratic process that always puts the voters first.

As the nation honors Sen. Kennedy, I trust his former advisers will drop this effort to revise Massachusetts law in pursuit of short-term partisan advantage. Some of those close to Kennedy seem to know they have to "cover their tracks." For example, from May 2005 to this month, Sen. Kennedy's speech in defense of the filibuster was featured on, as can be determined through a visit to the Internet archive and Google's Internet cache. Now it is gone, as the Senator's arguments are inconvenient in light of this latest partisan maneuver.

Enough. Long-term, standing up for democracy is better politics than seeking short-term advantage through gerrymandering the rules. First, Members of Congress should rally around Russ Feingold and John MccCain's latest collaborative effort to improve democracy through requiring all states to fill Senate vacancies by election, just as been required of U.S. House vacancies since our nation's founding.

Second, to take on the real problem behind the controversy over how to fill Sen. Kennedy's vacancy, Senators should change current filibuster rules. Senators should pledge to revise them immediately after the 2010 elections so that Senators in the minority can only delay votes in order to encourage deliberation, not block them permanently -- and then threaten to change the filibuster rules sooner if the minority is only using filibusters to require all meaningful legislation to have the votes of a super-majority of 60 Senators rather than a simple majority of 51 Senators.

As for Massachusetts, let this brazenly partisan effort go and instead let the voters decide who is fit to step into Sen. Kennedy's very big shoes.