Thursday, January 8, 2009

It's Time for the Senate to Hold Its Nose and Seat Burris

[This article also appears on You can access it from my author page here.]

Sometimes you just have to make chicken salad. Well, I don't, because I'm a vegetarian, but you know what I mean. Sometimes life throws you a curve at a bad time, and you just have to make the best of it. Yes, I'm talking to the Democrats in the U.S. Senate.

Look, I get it. Nobody was happier than I was on November 4 when Americans elected Barack Obama to be president, and vastly expanded Democratic control of the House and Senate. It was a triumphant moment, and I had a sense that after eight years of incompetence and disgrace, the "good guys" were finally going to be in charge.

My post-election high lasted through Obama's appointments, before crashing to a halt on December 9, when Patrick Fitzgerald, the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois, announced at a press conference that the governor of Illinois, Rod Blagojevich, had been busted for, among other things, trying to sell Obama's vacant senate seat.

So I completely understand how much it both sucks and blows (as Bart Simpson would say) that Obama, who had run a flawless and honorable campaign, and was engaging in a successful transition, was now tossed into the middle of a scandal, even though he had done absolutely nothing wrong. And worse, how the reverberations and stink of Blagojevich's alleged corruption have continued to haunt the Democrats in Washington to this day.

To be clear, I fully supported the letter, signed by all of the Democratic senators, that majority leader Harry Reid sent to Blagojevich, informing him that any appointment he made would be tainted, and, as a result, anyone chosen by him would not be seated by the Senate. Reid, an old trial lawyer, knows how to put up a good front to try and intimidate someone into doing what he wants.

But two things jumped up to bite Reid on the butt. First, Blagojevich is such a full-on delusional egomaniac, that, if anything, the letter probably egged him on to actually make an appointment. I'll bet assuming that a politician would act rationally is a mistake Reid won't make again. Second, and more importantly, Blagojevich (or someone close to him, if such a person still exists) apparently had access to a copy of the U.S. Constitution.

As a result, Blagojevich appointed Roland Burris, a 71-year-old former Illinois attorney general and comptroller, to fill the vacant senate seat.

Essentially, Blagojevich called Reid's bluff. You see, the first two paragraphs of Article 3, Section 5 of the U.S. Constitution state:

"Each House shall be the Judge of the Elections, Returns and Qualifications of its own Members, and a Majority of each shall constitute a Quorum to do Business; but a smaller number may adjourn from day to day, and may be authorized to compel the Attendance of absent Members, in such Manner, and under such Penalties as each House may provide.

Each House may determine the Rules of its Proceedings, punish its Members for disorderly Behavior, and, with the Concurrence of two-thirds, expel a Member."

The first key words are "Elections, Returns and Qualifications." There is no Illinois election in question, and Burris fulfills the qualifications to be appointed, since he was tapped by the sitting governor of his state (who is empowered under 17th Amendment to make the appointment) and, as Article 3 requires, is at least 30 years of age, has been a U.S. citizen for more than nine years, and is an inhabitant of Illinois. So, it would seem, the Senate has no authority under this clause to keep Burris from serving.

The second paragraph allows the Senate to expel a member, but the problem is that there is no evidence that Burris has done anything wrong. He wasn't one of the potential candidates swept up in the federal investigation of Blagojevich, and I'm quite sure you can't deny a seat to a senator just because he makes odd, grandiose statements like that his appointment was "what the Lord has ordained" (although it feels like you should be able to, no?).

Put another way, the Democrats in Washington have been backed into a corner by a soon-to-be-indicted governor with a fetish for his hairbrush. Reid made his stand, Blagojevich called him on it, and Burris showed up to the Senate, proclaiming, "Members of the media, my name is Roland Burris, the junior senator from the State of Illinois." Reid is now stuck. He made a big stink about Burris, but now he is left with not much of a case for excluding him and no strategic reason to fight. He is left depending on an issue as rickety as a missing secretary of state signature to keep Burris from serving.

That is the chicken, er, feces situation. Blagojevich has stuck the senate with an appointment that is tainted because it came from a seemingly epically corrupt governor. But Burris appears to be clean, and Blagojevich has the Constitution on his side. So what is the chicken salad? To paraphrase the comically inept Mark McGwire, whose worst moment in the public spotlight happened on Capitol Hill, I'm not here to talk about the past, I'm here to talk about the present. And the future. So seat Roland Burris and move on.

I say to Harry Reid, What is there worth fighting for here? Let Burris take the seat, and let's start trying to fix the Everest-sized pile of problems George W. Bush is leaving on Barack Obama's desk. There is no important principal to uphold. Is this the story you want dragging out over the next few weeks? What is the worst case scenario? Burris runs for re-election in 2010 and loses? If a Democrat loses a U.S. Senate race in Illinois, it will mean that things have gone horribly wrong in the next two years, and Roland Burris will be the least of the Democrats' problems.

Even Obama decided it would be best to let Burris serve. The guy has shown he has a pretty good sense of how to handle things. Now would be a good time to listen to him.

(As an aside, I am, on principal, refusing to address the claims, most prominently made by Rep. Bobby Rush, that there is any racial element to the Democrats' opposition to Burris's appointment. It is such a specious claim, and so unsupported by any facts, that it doesn't deserve to be addressed. I only make this note to make clear that I didn't forget about the issue, and I am not avoiding the issue, I just reject its relevance. To me, it's no different than not addressing that Burris was being opposed because his initials are R.B.)

Yes, thanks to Blagojevich, the Democrats in the Senate have been presented with a chicken feces situation. The best thing to do now is to make chicken salad, and that means swearing in Burris and moving on. Save the fight for something worthy, like if the courts overturn Al Franken's win in Minnesota.