Senator Today, Gone Tomorrow: Mo Cowan Joins Senate Short-Termers Club

What’s a seat warmer like Massachusetts’s new appointee to do? Four former fill-ins talk about the perks of being part of the World’s Greatest Deliberative Body—without campaigning.

02.08.13 9:45 AM ET

Welcome to the United States Senate, Mo Cowan. Don’t get too comfortable now, but get to work.

With his swearing-in today, William “Mo” Cowan of Massachusetts became the latest in a longish line of lawmakers to enter the world’s most deliberative body after being appointed by their governor with the understanding that they are only to keep the seat warm for a few months until a real election, with real politicians, can be held.

So what is a short-termer to do: at once one of the most powerful people in the nation but toiling away in a body filled with members who measure their tenure in decades, not years; where seniority is the most enviable attribute; and where productivity is measured in millimeters?

Since 2002, 15 people have been appointed to the U.S. Senate. Five entered with the expectation that theirs was a short-term appointment. The Daily Beast spoke with four of them to see if any had advice for Cowan.

“See as few lobbyists as you can and get as much done as you can,” says Dean Barkley, who served in the Senate for just 62 days, following the death of Paul Wellstone of Minnesota in a plane crash weeks before the 2002 election.

Oh, and he adds, “Look out for the girls in Washington, because they like senators. They really do. I kind of wish I wasn’t married when I was there, because there is a lot of opportunity.”

The first point, at least, was echoed by others who knew they would only be there a short while.

“Make the most of it, every day,” says George LeMieux, who was picked by Gov. Charlie Crist to serve out the last 17 months of Florida Sen. Mel Martinez’s term. “It’s a tremendous honor where you have your whole state and your whole country relying on you. Don’t think just because you are there for a short amount of time you can’t get anything done.”

On the other hand, remember this is the U.S. Senate we are talking about. There is a low bar for getting something done.

“The most important thing to remember is that the Senate is a go-with-the-flow kind of place in terms of how it functions,” said Ted Kaufman, a longtime aide to Joe Biden who took his place when the vice president moved to the White House. “I don’t mean go with the flow in terms of with everybody on the issues. But keep in mind that the Founding Fathers didn’t build this for precision or schedules or any kind of regularly ordered behavior. You just have to relax in terms of ambition and time.”

Back in the day, it was often the widows of deceased senators who got picked for the appointment. But ever since women started coming to Congress in increasing numbers, it is instead often a chief aide of the governor—such as Cowan was to Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick—who get picked. Or, as in Kaufman’s case and that of Paul Kirk of Massachusetts, the appointee is close to the senator who held the seat. According to Senate historian Paul Ritchie, governors who appoint themselves are performing “the kiss of death,” and the governor turned senator often goes on to lose the next election.

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“Voters really dislike this. It’s why most governors appoint a placeholder,” he said.

Anytime someone is appointed to fill a Senate seat, it can be awkward, Ritchie noted. In 1960, after he was elected president, John F. Kennedy really wanted his brother Ted to succeed him. The only problem was the younger Kennedy was too young, so President Kennedy implored Massachusetts Gov. Foster Furcolo to appoint his college roommate Benjamin Smith to keep the seat warm until his brother came of age. In 1964 Pierre Salinger was in the midst of a heated Senate campaign in California when the retiring incumbent died. Salinger was appointed to fill in for him for a few months, but the incumbency did him no good: he was stuck in Washington while his Republican opponent barnstormed the state and went on to win.

Carte Goodwin of West Virginia was picked by Gov. Joe Manchin after 92-year-old Robert Byrd died after holding his seat for 51 years. Goodwin only had for a few months before a special election could be held, which Manchin entered and won.

Goodwin insists there was no quid pro quo and dismisses those who are dismissive of his short time in the Senate.

“As I like to put it in polite company, Robert Byrd and I combined to served for over 52 years in the U.S. Senate,” and adds that he didn’t hesitate, even though he knew it would be a short-term assignment.

“The opportunity to go up there for any amount of time and see my name on the door of a United States Senate office with the words ‘West Virginia’ after it, it was worth any amount of time,” he said.

Goodwin—who is now considering running for the Senate seat being vacated by a retiring Jay Rockefeller—said that within five minutes of being sworn in he was on the floor, casting the deciding vote to break a filibuster over extending unemployment benefits. The key, he and others say, is to rely on helpful colleagues. And despite the popular conception of the Senate as place of ponderous partisanship, the short-termers say they all quickly grew to really like their colleagues.

“The senators are just really a great of people to hang out with,” says Kaufman. “Even with all this talk about unrest and all the rest of it, they are just a great group to be around. I know the Senate has low approval ratings, but if you had to pick a group to kind of hang with, senators are good people to hang with.”

Asked who in particular, Kaufman demurred. Barkley was less circumspect.

“Well, I loved Fred Thompson. I thought he was cool. When he said he had to quit the Senate because he had a new wife and he couldn’t afford it on a senator’s salary, I guess he went back to Law & Order and became a TV star again. I liked him. I liked Ted Kennedy. He gave me a lot of advice. We went up to his office, had a few drinks. He showed me all the pictures on his wall, all the good old stuff. He was very nice to me. And good old Hillary [Clinton] sat in front of me. She was very good at buying food in the cloakrooms in the back. She would foot the bill for the chicken wings or whatever we were having back there. It was fun.”

There are real advantages to knowing that your time in the Senate is short and circumscribed. You don’t have to raise money, don’t have to fret about the next election. None of the people spoken to for this article said that they would have done anything differently if running again for the seat, although the temptation must surely be there. All spoke to little legislative accomplishments they made. For Goodwin, it was the cloture vote on the unemployment benefits and confirming Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court; Barkley mentioned providing his state with a waiver on a new welfare law, something he got by withholding his vote on a Homeland Security bill. LeMieux mentioned crossing party lines on a small-business bill, something he may have not have done if he was concerned about his next election.

“It’s a wonderful job, especially if you don’t have to spend 60 percent of your time getting elected,” says Kaufman, who was one of the lead  investigators of the financial crisis during his time in office. “It’s great because of your access to information. If you really care about public-policy issues and you are a U.S. senator, you can call anybody in the world, and they will call you back. And so if you are interested in what is really going on, in what we should really be doing in Afghanistan, or you are really interested in what is going on on Wall Street, if you are really interested in these type of issues, it is an incredibly opportunity to really get to the bottom of what is going on.”

All four interviewed for this article said they were glad they did it and would do it again if asked. And there are perks to being a former senator, no matter how short the term. You still can insist on being called senator, for one. You can still go on the Senate floor anytime you like. There is a small pension waiting for you.

Barkley said he went back twice: once to just smoke a cigar in one of the leather chairs of the Senate cloakroom and the other time just to look back nostalgically at his old desk.

He said he would recommend the experience to anybody.

“Contrary to popular belief, being a senator isn’t that hard. It really isn’t. You have a staff, you have people that do most of the work. You just have to keep your wits about you and do some negotiating. If you can walk and talk and think, you can be a good senator.”

So good luck with it, Senator Cowan.