Steve Chapman

The British Parliament consists of the House of Commons, which is elected by the people, and the House of Lords, which is not. How different that is from our Congress. We have the House of Representatives, which is elected by the people, and the Senate, which is … well, mostly elected by the people.

The unfortunate truth is that four of the 100 members of the Senate got there without the consent of the governed. They were appointed to fill seats abandoned by someone who moved on to another job (including Barack Obama and Joe Biden). In the House, by contrast, vacated seats can be filled only by special elections.

The number of unelected senators will soon rise. Republican Mel Martinez of Florida is stepping down rather than serve the last 17 months of his term, and Texas Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison plans to leave this year to run for governor. Once their successors are sworn in, 27 percent of Americans will be represented by senators who didn't get a single vote in a free election.

Among these unfortunates are the people of Illinois. Not only did they have no say on their new senator, but they are stuck with a risible appointee, Roland Burris, named by a governor, Rod Blagojevich, who was impeached for his corrupt selection methods.

That's something Illinoisans will have to live with until November 2010, when there finally will be an election for the office. Unless, that is, the federal judiciary intervenes. Next month the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals will hear a lawsuit arguing that when a Senate vacancy occurs, an election must be held within a reasonable period, and any appointee may serve only for that brief interim.

It's an audacious argument -- considering that in the last 96 years, 184 people have served in the Senate without winning an election. But audacity is in order when an entrenched custom violates the plain design of the Constitution.

For most of our history, the public had no say on the upper house. Senators were chosen by state legislatures. Not until the ratification of the 17th Amendment in 1913 did voters gain the right to elect them.

Steve Chapman

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

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