Commentary Magazine


The Blago Vortex

Roland Burris isn’t going away quietly. In fact, he’s not going away at all. He’s figured out he may have a fairly good legal argument to keep his senate seat — and he’s liking his new perch just fine. This report suggests he’s not going to be bullied or cajoled by the likes of Harry Reid:

The man appointed by Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich to fill the U.S. Senate seat vacated by President-elect Barack Obama suggested he would challenge any effort to block the move, but said he is confident Senate Democrats will relent and let him take the job.

“We think they will come around and recognize that the appointment is legal and valid and I am the junior senator from Illinois,” Roland Burris said during an interview at his office.

Mr. Burris, a former Illinois attorney general, spoke Wednesday as it became clear that Mr. Blagojevich had offered the post to at least one other African-American politician, and as U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald sought more time to seek an indictment against the governor — and perhaps widen a five-year-old case that already has resulted in felony convictions.

Mr. Blagojevich, facing federal corruption charges, on Tuesday named Mr. Burris to the seat the governor is accused of trying to sell. Senate Democrats said they would block the appointment, citing the allegations. Mr. Blagojevich has denied wrongdoing.

Mr. Burris, 71 years old, brushed off the opposition in a 25-minute interview during which aides called him “senator” and he argued that he would represent his state well. “From South Beloit to Cairo, from Galena to Zion, East St. Louis to Lawrenceville, I know this state. I know its people,” he said.

He also questioned — as have several legal scholars — the Senate’s right to keep him from taking the seat, asking, “By what authority can [Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid] deny a governor carrying out his constitutional duty?”

“I am the senator, and it sounds good,” said Mr. Burris, now a lobbyist and lawyer. “I’m giving up a lot of money to go to the Senate, OK? I’m taking a pay cut,” he said, referring to a U.S. senator’s salary of about $169,000 a year.

The Senate Democrats seem to be banking on a scheme to “investigate” the matter, wait for Blago to be impeached and then seat the new appointee selected by the Lt. Governor. But wait. Under Burris’s reasoning he is already the junior Senator from Illinois. No matter what happens to Blago in a few weeks or months, the seat won’t be open again until 2010.

E.J. Dionne has it right:

The problem for Democrats is that by leaving the Senate appointment in Blagojevich’s hands, the Illinois legislature gave the governor an explosive device that he was prepared to use without regard to collateral damage. Even if Democrats in the Senate want to keep Burris out, a past Supreme Court decision suggests that Burris would have a fighting chance of holding his seat. And even if Blagojevich is impeached or convicted, the appointment still stands.

We may go from no Illinois junior senator to two contenders for the spot. Really, it’s fascinating how one crooked state pol can ensnare both the new presidential administration and Congress. The Obama team is lawyering up, the Senate will be sued, and the grand jury in Illinois will spend months reeling in more witnesses who, in turn, may implicate still more politicians. It’s hard to recall a single figure who has caused as much consternation and litigation.

The lesson here? Don’t associate with corrupt pols, don’t take their calls or make deals with them (even without an explicit quid pro quo). Instead: eliminate their influence, even at the expense of “risking” an open election.

Dionne is wrong to praise “Obama’s patented approach to problems — wait and think to see what develops before acting.” It is precisely the benign toleration of Blago and the unwillingness to move swiftly to cut off his power of appointment that created this mess. It is a warning for the President-elect and his party: cut off corruption before it devours you.