By Nathan L. Gonzales
In Arizona and Georgia, running for higher office often involves an extra bit of sacrifice. It’s not just the time and money, but ambitious politicians often are required to resign their current office in order to run for another one. The rationale is simple: Keep politicians focused on the job they were elected to do.
With the large number of legislators in the Democratic and Republican presidential fields, maybe it’s time to consider a national resign-to-run law.
Five Members of the Senate and four Members of the House actively are seeking their party’s nomination. And each of them is missing a considerable amount of votes and spending time on the campaign trail in states other than the ones they were elected to represent.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has missed more than half of the votes in the 110th Congress. Sens. Joseph Biden (D-Del.), Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) have each missed at least a third of this year’s votes. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) has missed 18 percent.
Dodd took things one step further by moving to Iowa with his wife and enrolling his daughter in kindergarten there, all while representing Connecticut a thousand miles away.
GOP Reps. Duncan Hunter (Calif.), Tom Tancredo (Colo.) and Ron Paul (Texas) have missed more than a quarter of the votes in the House, while Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) has missed about 12 percent, the best percentage of a sitting legislator running for president.
Politicians missing votes while on the campaign trail is not a new story, but resigning to run is not discussed as a solution.
“If you are of the belief that the sole responsibility of an elected official is to that office, then it’s a good thing,” according to one Democratic operative in Georgia, where a politician’s seat is declared vacant once he qualifies for another office, unless his current term of office is scheduled to end before the term of the office he is seeking begins. Georgia passed the law in 1983 after then-Lt. Gov. Zell Miller (R) unsuccessfully ran for the Senate.
The concept of resigning to run for president is not unprecedented. Then-Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.) resigned his seat — and his position as Majority Leader — in June 1996 in order to concentrate on his presidential campaign. But that was after he had the Republican nomination sewn up.
If Senators and House Members were forced to resign their seats to run for president, even for the nomination, it could decrease the number of candidates and potentially shorten the length of the campaigns. But a couple of ingredients are missing before such a reform even can be considered.
First, there would have to be a movement for change.
“There would have to be a backlash,” said Norman Ornstein, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and Roll Call contributing writer, explaining that now, the only criticism a candidate usually receives for missed votes comes from opponents and not from the grass roots.
Second, enacting a national resign-to-run law would be a logistical nightmare. “In the past, there has been a propensity to leave it to the states,” Ornstein said. State laws range from Arizona’s and Georgia’s resign-to-run to Connecticut, where Sen. Joe Lieberman (ID) simultaneously ran for re-election and for vice president in 2000.
Because states have the right to govern their own elections, the reform would require a constitutional amendment. If simple majorities could force Members to resign, then the law could be easily manipulated for partisan reasons.
In general, election reform measures are difficult to pass at the state level because of skeptical voters. Three-quarters of the state legislatures would have to ratify a constitutional amendment.
An amendment also would require two-thirds support in the House and Senate. Asking legislators to restrict their freedom to run for president seems like an impossible fight, but Georgia legislators made a similar move two decades ago. Only two amendments to the U.S. Constitution have passed in the past 35 years, and it has been 15 years since the last one went into effect.
But it’s not even clear that requiring legislators to resign in order to run for president would hurt their candidacies. John F. Kennedy was the last sitting Senator elected president back in 1960, and a sitting House Member hasn’t been elected since James Garfield in 1880. Maybe sitting on Capitol Hill isn’t the best way to get to the White House anyway.
A national resign-to-run law could leave a wake of political activity, with more special elections and open seats. It also potentially would complicate the decisions of Senators residing in states where their party does not control the governorship.
Critics of the proposal believe decreasing the number of presidential candidates is unhealthy for democracy and that it’s unfair to punish sitting lawmakers.
“I don’t think you should artificially limit who can run fro president,” Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano (D) said.
But no one would be prohibited from running for president, just unable to hold his or her elected position while running for another office.
“It eliminates those people who are, perhaps, not that serious,” one Georgia Democratic operative said about the potential of weeding out candidates who simply want to push a specific issue rather than win, or are just “shopping” for another office.
“I understand the philosophy at the state level,” Napolitano said. “But I’m not persuaded it would play well on the national level.”
In Arizona, legislators do not have to give up their seat to run for another office if they are in the final year of their term. But the early nature of the presidential primary calendar would force candidates to campaign before they get to that final year.
Even with a resign-to-run law, aspiring candidates likely would be creative in their efforts to skirt the law.
“It’s viewed more as a speed bump,” according to one Arizona Democratic insider.
Democrats are charging Arizona state Senate President Tim Bee (R) with violating the spirit of the state’s law by opening a Congressional exploratory committee while still holding his office. In the previous cycle, Gabrielle Giffords (D) resigned her state Senate seat to run in the 8th district and benefited from the law when the Republicans’ best candidate couldn’t make it out of the primary because he waited to resign his legislative seat until late in the campaign.
Giffords’ risk proved to be worth it, but there are no guarantees. Earlier this year, then-state Sen. Jim Whitehead (R) was the favorite to succeed the late Rep. Charlie Norwood (R) in the 10th district special election in Georgia. Abiding by state law, Whitehead resigned but subsequently lost the special primary in an upset.
This story first appeared in Roll Call on December 6, 2007. Copyright 2007 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.
Tuesday, December 11, 2007
By Nathan L. Gonzales