The furor over Chris Christie’s handling of a Senate vacancy–and other, if less intensive furors surrounding other vacancies in the relatively recent past–raises the question: how did the practice of giving governors this power begin in the first place?

Progressive Policy Institute senior fellow Raymond A. Smith answers that question at the PPI site today:

Until 1913, all U.S. Senators were appointed by state legislatures, which was part of the Founders’ plan for differentiating the House and the Senate. So whenever a vacancy arose in the Senate due to death or resignation, the state legislature would simply fill the position at its next session. Gubernatorial appointments to vacant seats took place from time to time, but were usually short-term affairs that lasted only until action by the state legislature.

Since enactment of the 17th Amendment, gubernatorial appointments can last much longer – in some cases as long as two years. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, thirty-six states allow governors to fill vacancies until the next regular election; most of the other 14 allow governors to make interim appointments until a special election.

So I guess this is another reason “constitutional conservatives” hate the 17th Amendment!

Senate vacancies seem rare enough until they add up, notes Smith:

In early 2009, governors in four states simultaneously filled the Senate seats left empty when Barack Obama, Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, and Ken Salazar joined the incoming Obama administration. By late 2009, after the death of Ted Kennedy and the resignation of Mel Martinez, one in eight Americans was represented by at least one appointed Senator. In the aftermath of former Illinois Governor Rod Blagoevich’s attempt to “sell” Barack Obama’s Senate seat that year, a brief reform movement arose but ultimately gained little traction.

Lautenberg’s successor will become the twelfth sitting Senator to have originally entered the Senate via gubernatorial appointment

What makes the New Jersey situation stand out is that the governor making the appointment is from the opposing political party of the former Senator (the seven vacancies referred to above, plus the more recent vacancies in Massachusetts, South Carolina and Hawaii, did not lead to party-switching appointments). But this kind of scenario is far from unknown, and can have unpredictable repercussions. Since today marks the anniversary of Robert Kennedy’s assassination, it’s worth pointing out that RFK was replaced by Republican Charles Goodell (appointed by NY Gov. Nelson Rockefeller), who in turn lost in 1970 to Conservative Party nominee James Buckley as Goodell and Democrat Richard Ottinger split the liberal/moderate vote. So all the elaborate guesswork around Christie’s appointment may not be quite the waste of time it might otherwise seem to be.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.