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Kennedy’s Death Provides a Lesson in Bad Partisan Politics

By Brian | August 26, 2009 | Share on Facebook

The recent death of Senator Edward Kennedy marks the end of a tremendous political career, steeped heavily in accomplishments that benefited average, “working class” Americans across his almost forty-seven years in the Senate. The “Lion of the Senate” would even occasionally cross traditional political lines to accomplish his goals, as he did in 2002, working with Republican President George W. Bush to pass the No Child Left Behind Act.

So it is more than a little bit ironic that the aftermath of his death is about to demonstrate to us all how petty, partisan politicking can significantly and negatively impact the American people.

Our story starts back in 2004, when the junior senator from Massachusetts, John Kerry, ran for President. Fearing the loss of a senate seat should he win (the heavily Democratic state had elected a Republican governor, Mitt Romney, two years earlier), the state’s legislature changed the long-standing process for replacing a senator from a gubernatorial appointment to a special election, which was to be held 145-160 days after a senator left the Senate, with the seat remaining vacant in the interim. State Democrats rationalized the decision with platitudes like “We have always felt that this position is significant enough that no one person should make that determination. It should be decided by the people.” State House Speaker, Thomas M. Finneran, was the only one to say what everyone already knew: “Inevitably, whether it’s a Democratic governor or a Republican governor, it’s a political deal. It’s very raw politics. Each side was just putting on a little bit of a show for the other side.”

Fast forward five years to 2009, when the governor of Massachusetts, the President of the United States, the U.S. House of Representatives and a filibuster-proof 60% of the U.S. Senate are Democrats, and when the federal government is embroiled in a debate over one of Ted Kennedy’s lifelong pursuits – universal healthcare.

Back in July, aware that he was dying, Senator Kennedy wrote a letter to Massachusetts state legislators supporting the special election process, but asking that the governor be allowed to nominate an interim senator for the 145-day waiting period. Such a law was never passed.

Now, if the threat of a Republican filibuster is deemed credible, we’re all going to have to wait at least 145 days for healthcare reform, if not longer. And even if the Republicans don’t threaten such action, every politician in the state of Massachusetts is going to launch what Bloomberg.com called a mad scramble to win election to the seat. One can expect the already hyperbolic debate to intensify even more, as potential candidates for the vacated seat spend those 145-160 days offering their opinions on the topic. One can assume that Massachusetts Republicans, with almost zero hope of actually winning the senate seat, will see little downside to injecting talk of “death panels” and the like into this process.

To make matters worse, some of the top candidates for the seat include Massachusetts’ most senior Congressmen, Barney Frank and Edward Markey, heads of the House Financial Services Committee and Subcommittee on Energy and the Environment, respectively. So one can assume that focus on those areas, at least in the House, will also falter over the next 4-6 months.

Fred Bayles, director of Boston University’s statehouse program, says:

[The special election] has a profound impact on Massachusetts politics and elected office. Everything’s going to fall down because everyone will start moving around either jockeying for [Kennedy's] seat or for the other positions that could open up.

Bottom line: a self-interested, short-term focused, politically motivated, 2004 Massachusetts legislature attempted to screw over their Republican governor, and instead, threw a giant roadblock into the middle of a national healthcare debate and who-knows what other government business, at a time when the Democrats could really use a big win on the national stage. And when they’re finished destroying each other, it’ll be just about the right time for the Republicans to begin campaigning for the 2012 mid-terms.

So what will we likely learn from all of this? That’s right – absolutely nothing. We never do…

Topics: Political Rantings | 4 Comments »

4 Responses to “Kennedy’s Death Provides a Lesson in Bad Partisan Politics”

  1. Ilya says at August 26th, 2009 at 3:28 pm :
    It does not inspire much confidence in our elected officials seeing such blunder come back to bite them so quickly. Thanks for highlighting this angle, Brian!

  2. Jeff Porten says at August 26th, 2009 at 9:26 pm :
    Hmm. I vaguely recall that the 51-vote majority and the 60-vote cloture rules aren’t absolute — those are the numbers when there’s a full 100-seat Senate. I’m not sure if there’s a loophole when only 99 seats are filled.

    That said, this also assumes that Republicans stay in lockstep. I can certainly see a Maine vote switching over to break a filibuster if the bill being blocked is popular in the state.

    As for MA — well, there are good arguments against gubernatorial appointments anyway (glancing in the direction of Illinois). I don’t see why the state house couldn’t pass the temporary appointment law now; it’s not like Kennedy’s death was a statute of limitations.

  3. Brian says at August 26th, 2009 at 9:43 pm :
    I’m no expert, but everyone made a big deal when Franken finally got seated, because it gave them the 60 vote majority they needed, so I assume the same goes for a death?

    As for Massachusetts passing a new state law while a senate seat is vacant, I’m guessing that would be political anathema. The law they passed says “this is how you replace a senator.” If they pass a new law right before replacing a senator, doesn’t it suggest that they feel free to ignore the law and do what they want? Maybe there’s some political cover in Kennedy’s letter requesting the interim appointment, but still…

  4. Lisa Rafal says at August 26th, 2009 at 9:54 pm :
    It all makes me sick. If Republicans were behind this, it would be the only thing you heard about on the evening news. But since it’s the pablum pukers, it’s OK. People all over the country should be up in arms about the fact that the democrats of the good Commonwealth of Massachusetts are trying to subvert a process that they put in place to subvert a process that wasn’t convenient for them. As I tell my kids, “you get what you get and you don’t get upset.” You don’t get to change the rules of the game every time you play because your position changes. And as for it derailing healthcare reform. I say, the longer, the better. The Obama administration needs to stay out of the healthcare industry (yes, people it’s a BUSINESS!!!) and get the heck out of the other INDUSTRIES he’s taken over with his New Deal Part Deux policies.
    (deep breath)

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