What’s the point of having an interim Senator, anyway?

I can think of three basic reasons why it’s important to have an interim Senator in place during the five-month window between vacancy and special election.

  1. To vote.  This was especially important after Senator Kennedy’s death, since the balance of power in the Senate at the time was such that the existence or non-existence of a vacancy in the MA delegation could have meant the difference between 59 and 60 votes on the president’s health care bill (among others potentially subject to filibuster).
  2. To keep the machinery of the office running until the winner of the special election arrives.  Under Senate rules, an office must be closed if it is vacant for 60 days; an interim prevents this from happening and can keep constituent services and other routine (though important) business running smoothly.
  3. To advocate effectively within the Senate on matters important to Massachusetts and the nation.  The argument here is, essentially, “this is what Senators are supposed to do, so an interim as well as a regular Senator should do it.”

Reason 1, though obviously important, is frankly pretty easy: anyone left-leaning person reasonably up to speed on the issues of the day could do it in a manner that most Dems would find acceptable.  Furthermore, unlike in 2009, the current balance of power in the Senate (55-45 for the Dems) is such that the MA interim’s vote is unlikely to be the deciding one (though it’s certainly possible if the stars lined up in an unusual way).  There is no shortage of people who could readily carry out this part of the job.

Reason 2 is something that anyone with some basic management experience could handle.  A Senate office is not very large, and one assumes that the interim will keep in place most if not all of the current staffers.  They all know their jobs, and there’s a chief of staff to help the interim understand how the place works.  So, again, reason 2 doesn’t help us narrow down the field of potential appointments very far.

But reason 3 is a different matter.  The Senate operates largely on seniority, and the interim will be no. 100 in a group of 100, so exercising influence will be difficult.  In addition, as I said in this very long thread,

[the Senate] is weird; it operates on a bizarre and arcane set of rules and customs; someone new to the Hill simply cannot master them in time to get anything substantial done in 4 months.

To me, those considerations drastically narrow down the number of good candidates for the job.  Regardless of how smart someone without congressional experience is, regardless of how exceptional their accomplishments in other fields, regardless even of how much knowledge they may have that bears directly on important issues before the Senate, their lack of seniority coupled with their lack of familiarity with the Senate’s operation will make it nearly impossible for them to be truly effective during their short stint in the Senate.  Consider our last interim, Paul Kirk.  He knew a lot of the players personally, and although he had never held federal office, he had more familiarity with the ways of Washington than most people do.  But did he accomplish anything beyond reasons 1 and 2?  Not that I can recall … he gave a floor speech backing a public option in the health care bill, but he was obviously unsuccessful in making that happen, and I don’t remember anything else of note from his tenure (perhaps I’ve forgotten something – feel free to remind me).

The only person I can think of who has any chance of overcoming the built-in weaknesses of the interim spot, and who is also a plausible candidate for the job, is Barney Frank.  The reasons are fairly obvious (does anyone know how the Hill works better than he does?), and have been stated by many including me in this thread.  Furthermore, though it’s usually impossible to forecast when particular big issues will come before the Senate, in this case we know that big “fiscal cliff” issues (debt ceiling, sequester, etc.) will be front-and-center during the time that the interim will be in office (assuming Kerry is confirmed quickly, as everyone expects).  Frank’s many years of service on the House Financial Services Committee make him uniquely qualified to work on those issues, and to exercise outsized influence for an interim.  Frank could also provide invaluable support and guidance to the person who will by then be our senior Senator, Elizabeth Warren, and the two of them would be a truly formidable team when it comes to financial issues.  Warren herself seems enamored of the idea, and her views should certainly be taken into account.

I understand and respect the desire of Doug Rubin and others to bring “new talent and ideas to the Congress.”  Indeed, I heartily support that goal under the right circumstances (Elizabeth Warren being Exhibit A).  I just don’t think the interim post is an appropriate circumstance, for the reasons I’ve already stated.  The “talent and ideas” that most candidates would bring to that job, however exceptional on their own merits, will simply not get any traction in a five-month interim appointment, given the nature of the Senate.  So, for me, Barney Frank is the obvious choice.  It may be that nobody can be truly effective in that job, given the institutional constraints under which the interim will necessarily operate.  But if anyone can do it, I’d think he’d be the guy.

Of course, there are other reasons to appoint someone interim Senator.  ”Senator” is a lovely honorific that would serve as a fine capstone to a distinguished career in another field; the job is a nice reward for exemplary and loyal service; and it’s a relatively high-profile gig that could be used to enhance someone’s prominence, thereby perhaps helping them win a different office down the road.  But none of those reasons strikes me as particularly attuned to what’s best for the people of Massachusetts, so I don’t think they should be given much if any weight in deciding who should be our next Senator for five months.


4 Comments . Leave a comment below.
  1. Strong case, nicely argued

    Couldn’t agree with your post more. Very well stated and I think you make a convincing and logical case.

    The #1 concern for Governor Patrick, it would seem to me, is for the interim period to not be a waste and for the person in this role to be a strong advocate for the state ie to prevent a vacuum, etc. A placeholder who doesn’t do much seems like either a missed opportunity or in fact could be a net loss for the state. Seems much better to have someone in this position who could hit the ground running, be a strong advocate, and work effectively with the rest of the Mass delegation to advocate for the state. Barney seems uniquely qualified to play this role well — and the fact that Senator Warren recognizes this and has weighed in on this contentious issue, to me, is also pretty persuasive.

  2. Forgot to say I too agree very strongly in principle with Doug Rubin, who I like and respect a great deal, that we should be looking to bring new voices into our party and our state’s leadership.

    Look at the enthusiaism for Governor Patrick and Senator Warren — both unconventional, outsider candidates, fresh voices. In addition, we need vastly more gender/racial/other diversity in our leadership. So I think this is an important and valid point.

    However, I agree with you that the interim post is not a terribly good vehicle for promoting a fresh face — if for no other reason than the person can’t run for the seat. Let’s run some fresh faces for real open positions so they can serve for a long time.

    My new favorite person to see run for higher office hopefully soon? Andrea Cabral, who was fantastic imo at the Warren swearing in @ RCC on Saturday. Let’s run her for anything higher up, seriously. She is ten kinds of awesome. :-)

    • David is right on two points, argues strongly for a third

      You make a compelling case for three points, one of which you may not have realized, all can be summed up by this quote

      [the Senate] is weird; it operates on a bizarre and arcane set of rules and customs; someone new to the Hill simply cannot master them in time to get anything substantial done in 4 months.

      Which is why:

      1)Frank for Interim:

      Above and beyond the best choice for the 3 reasons you stated as well as that nice encapsulating quote. Nobody else would get anything done in that matter of time provided.

      2) Markey for the general:

      He will be an effective Senator day one, and he and our soon to be senior Senator Warren will make a great team. Her fresh perspective and passion balanced with his experience and connections. Since Teddy died our Senate delegation has been marred by uncertainty and choas, these two will bring order back and also deliver for the Commonwealth on the priorities we all care about.

      3) Five months not nearly enough:

      This point you made quite strongly, possibly without intending to. We should strongly look at changing the law yet again, after this cycle, to ensure that instead of an absurdly short 90 days to call an election and a 4-5 month interim period, whomever is appointed has until the next scheduled biennial election to make a difference and whomever wants to run (whether its the appointed person or not) will have far more time to state their case. This way we will not have had the unprecedented three elections for Senate within two years like we just saw. No other state has ever had that. This maintains the electoral safeguard against a corrupt, Blago style appointment while also preserving and extending the influence of the interim Senator and giving them time to achieve.

      • I don't think there's a problem with our current system

        At least, what we’ve seen thus far is way too anecdotal to decide to upend the system yet *again.*

        RyansTake   @   Mon 7 Jan 7:54 PM

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