UNTIL 2004, the Massachusetts governor could appoint someone to fill a vacant Senate seat until the next general election - as much as two years away. But the Democratic state Legislature carelessly upended that time-tested practice fearing that former governor Mitt Romney would appoint a fellow Republican if Senator John Kerry won the presidency. It was a partisan bill made worse by the fact that it made no provisions for filling the seat for up to five months before the special election called for in the legislation. Now Massachusetts and the nation face the prospect not only of losing Ted Kennedy, who is battling brain cancer, but of being one senator shy while major policies are being debated and shaped on health care, climate change, restoring the economy, and defense.
The immediate matter for the Legislature is to ensure adequate representation for Massachusetts residents in the US Senate. Kennedy himself has offered state lawmakers an elegant solution: change the law to allow the governor to make a temporary appointment with the assurance of an “explicit personal commitment’’ that the appointee would not run for the office. Massachusetts would remain at full strength in the Senate, the prospect for health care reform would remain alive, and the voters would have their final say on a new senator within a few months.
Legislators are wary of the request. Even if they see the logic and want to accommodate the stricken senator, it would make them look hypocritical to hand the power of appointment back to a Democratic governor a few years after stripping it from a Republican. Even more so because Romney had proposed a compromise similar to the one now offered by Kennedy.
The image of the state Legislature, however, is a minor point compared with the prospect of Massachusetts at 50 percent strength in the Senate. Everyone already knows that blatant politics compelled the Legislature’s Democratic majority to create this mess in 2004. If anything, this is an opportunity for lawmakers to redeem themselves by putting the interests of representative government and health care reform, a hallmark of Massachusetts, above Beacon Hill politics.
One of the most powerful figures in national politics is passing. Filling his shoes will be daunting. The answer isn’t to do nothing for five months.