Sen. Tim Johnson: Power Change Uncertain

Senator Tim Johnson’s (D-S.D.) sudden critical illness has set off a veritable media frenzy in the US, fuelled by speculation that the Democrats could be set to lose their razor-thin majority in the US Senate.

Indeed, Sen. Johnson’s departure from office would enable South Dakota’s Republican governor to appoint a Republican replacement, resulting in a new 50-50 split in the US Senate – which, with Vice-President Dick Cheney’s deciding vote, would hand control of the Senate back to the Republicans. Yet after his surgery on Wednesday to treat an “intracerebral bleed caused by a congenital arteriovenous malformation”, Sen. Johnson is said to be recovering well at George Washington University Hospital. Most importantly, he has survived the critical post-operative forty-eight hour threshold, which greatly improves his chances of making a full recovery.

Professor of History Julian Zelizer of Boston University told the News Hour with Jim Lehrer that there is no historical precedent in which a member of Congress has been forced to resign due to poor health. He cited the example of the late Karl Mundt (also from South Dakota), a Republican who served as a member of the US House of Representatives from 1938-1948 and as a US Senator from 1948-1973. Sen. Mundt suffered a severe stroke in 1969 that rendered him unable to attend sessions of Congress, yet he remained in office until the end of his term in 1973. More recently, Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.) returned to the Senate in late 1988 after several months recovering from a near-fatal brain aneurysm.

Most unforgettable is the historic contribution of the late Senator Clair Engle (D-Calif.), who battled brain cancer in 1963-64 while fending off calls for his resignation from his fellow Democrats. On June 10, 1964 he cast the deciding vote in the US Senate which ended the filibuster preventing passage of the Civil Rights Act 1964 – a landmark US legislative achievement.  Senator Engle insisted on being wheeled into the chamber and used sign language to cast his historic vote – a moment preserved in a US Senate Historical Minute Essay: “The clerk proceeded to call the roll. When he reached ‘Mr. Engle’, there was no response. A brain tumor had robbed California’s mortally ill Clair Engle of his ability to speak. Slowly lifting a crippled arm, he pointed to his eye, thereby signaling his affirmative vote [‘aye’]. Few of those who witnessed this heroic gesture ever forgot it.” Six weeks later, Senator Engle died in Washington, D.C. at the age of 52.

Historical precedent indicates that, apart from Sen. Johnson’s voluntary retirement, only his untimely death can force his seat to be vacated. And only then would the conditions be set for the governor of South Dakota to appoint a Republican to shift the balance of power in the US Senate.  Even so, it does seem counter-democratic that such a scenario could be played out – especially given that US voters clearly used the November 7 mid-term elections to discipline the Republican party and transfer Congressional power to the Democrats.

All things considered, it seems fair and reasonable to support the introduction of uniform legislation across the country that removes the ability of state governors to make political appointments (albeit only in rare and unfortunate circumstances) that overrule the vote of the American people.

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