Steve Chapman

"Experience keeps a dear school," wrote Benjamin Franklin, "but fools will learn in no other." Right now, Americans are getting a crash course in the folly of our general approach to filling vacancies in the United States Senate. But so far, there is little evidence that we are learning the obvious lesson.

This week, President Obama appointed Sen. Judd Gregg, a Republican, to head the Commerce Department. When the idea was floated, cynics suspected a sinister motive. New Hampshire has a Democratic governor, John Lynch, and the iron tradition is that a governor, faced with a vacancy, fills it with someone from his own party -- even if it differs from that of the departing senator.

As it happens, Democrats were already on the verge of gaining their 59th seat, assuming Al Franken's apparent victory in Minnesota stands. Gregg's resignation would give them the chance to reach 60, the magic number for the dominant party to do anything it wants.

But that suspicion was in error. Gregg told the president he would accept only if Lynch would name a Republican replacement, denying Democrats a filibuster-proof majority. Lynch agreed, choosing Bonnie Newman, whose promise not to run in 2010 gives both parties a fair shot at capturing the seat.

On the surface, this sounds good. Obama gets to reaffirm his commitment to transcending old enmities, improving the chances for bipartisan cooperation. The Cabinet gets someone who will discourage the president from veering too far left. The Senate balance remains intact, impeding Democrats from oppressing the minority.

It's a far cry from the debacle in Illinois, where a governor allegedly tried to sell Obama's vacant Senate seat for personal gain -- and who, when that reported attempt came to light, appointed Roland Burris mainly because he had the same skin color as Obama. By comparison, the New Hampshire approach looks like a model of responsible stewardship.

Until, that is, you remember the clear loser in the deal: the people of the state, who for the next two years will be represented by someone they have never elected to any office, didn't elect to this one and may not want. As a bonus for their trouble, if it turns out they do like her, they can't keep her.

Rod Blagojevich treated a Senate appointment as a get-rich-quick scheme. Obama, Gregg and Lynch treat it as a tool for arranging the Washington political landscape to their liking. In each case, the voters are reduced to potted plants.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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