It used to be that the way you decided who had political authority in a country was that you looked at who had political authority last year. If he was still alive, then he kept his authority. If he died, his oldest living son got political authority. Then he kept it until he died. At which point it passed to his oldest living son. This system persisted for a long time and it has enough of a grip on the human imagination that you still see it formalized in Saudi Arabia and informally in effect in places like Syria and North Korea. It doesn’t, however, make any real sense. It’s not a rational or fair or just way to allocate political power.
Meanwhile, in the United States Senate the way they determine who gets to chair the Senate Finance Committee is they ask who chaired it last year. If he’s still around, he stays in charge. And if he dies or retires or loses an election, then the power automatically falls to the next guy in line. The guy can be corrupt or incompetent, and he still gets it. His views might be out of line with the sentiments of the party in charge or the American people, and he still gets it. He might represent a state containing no metropolitan areas, no racial minorities, and barely any rural white people and he still gets it. Vast authority with almost no accountability.
That’s why I was glad to read this:
In an apparent warning to Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), some liberal Democrats have suggested a secret-ballot vote every two years on whether or not to strip committee chairmen of their gavels. […] Harkin did not mention Baucus, but his suggestion would likely resonate with the senior Montana Democrat, who has often clashed with his colleagues over important bills.
The merits of this proposal really have nothing to do with the details of Baucus or the health care battle. They are also obvious and overwhelming. We wouldn’t pick committee chairmen by alphabetical order, or based on their ethnicity, or their age, or a system of primogeniture. We don’t generally believe in a system of political authority by divine right. Instead, political authority normally derives either from election by the people or else appointment by other elected officials. Congressional committee chairmanships, especially in the Senate, are a strange and anachronistic exception to that rule and changing the rule is an excellent idea.