Chicago Machine Produced Scoundrels as Well as Titans

Posted December 12, 2008 at 4:20pm

Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) has changed the subject in Washington, D.C., albeit not in ways most of us would like. His breathtaking comments, suggesting a level of derangement combined with a willingness to create new standards for violations of public integrity, have created an interesting series of challenges for the Illinois Legislature and for Congress.

[IMGCAP(1)]Let me start, though, with a brief defense of Chicago and Illinois, and of machine politics. Blagojevich ran for governor as an insurgent reformer and got elected as such; so did one of his Democratic predecessors, Dan Walker. Walker ended up in jail, and Blagojevich has a significant prospect of the same fate. Republican Gov. George Ryan, now in prison, ran against the Chicago machine as a downstate reformer.

That same machine, along with its extension in the Illinois Democratic establishment, gave us Adlai Stevenson and his son; Paul Douglas, one of the greatest Senators in the 20th century; and the late Sen. Paul Simon, a man of towering integrity. There are problems with political machines, including lots of corruption, and some of Chicago’s greatest political talents and ethical stars, including Sid Yates, Ab Mikva and, yes, President-elect Barack Obama, sprang from the reformist reaction against machine excesses. For all its endemic problems and giant political warts, Illinois, through the machine and the anti-machine, gave America some of its political giants.

In the short run, the issue confronting Illinois and the Senate is over the dynamics of the replacement for Obama. So long as Blagojevich is governor, and he will not leave until he is forced out, he can make an appointment to the U.S. Senate. The Senate cannot block an appointment, even though it can block the certification for an elected prospective Senator. Under the precedent of Powell v. McCormack, the only grounds for rejection of an appointee would be a violation of the constitutional requirements of age and residency. But it can, and would, expel any person picked for the post by the disgraced and discredited governor. Of course, that is not a likely scenario: Who in their right mind would accept an appointment offered by Blagojevich — knowing that they would be expelled by the Senate as soon as they were sworn in? Is there anybody who would like to have that experience as their footnote in history?

The Illinois Legislature is also working toward quick action on a bill to take away the governor’s power of appointment to fill a Senate vacancy and move to an election. That would solve the immediate problem but create others. A statewide election, under the best of circumstances and with a compressed timetable for the parties to choose their nominees, would take perhaps four months to complete, leaving a crucial Senate seat vacant through most of the new president’s first 100 days.

Appointments to the Senate are often controversial. They can involve relatives, cronies or even governors. Since 1913, when the Constitution was amended to provide direct election of Senators, states have had the option of filling vacancies through election or by gubernatorial appointment. Most states chose the latter, but there has been a mini-trend toward special elections. It is understandable but worrisome. I am especially worried because of the continuity of Congress issue. If a terrorist attack wiped out more than half the Senate, it would be paralyzed, unable to do any business until it had a quorum of half the Members. Waiting for months to get back in the saddle is simply unacceptable.

At the same time, in a body of only 100 Members, any single vacancy, or handful of vacancies, can be of critical importance — it changes the numbers on the filibuster issue and alters lots of balances. Thank goodness that it appears Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.), one of the truly great people in the Senate, is ready to come back full steam after his long health ordeal. But the Minnesota Senate controversy will likely go into next year, and there could be other vacancies that will leave the Senate several seats below 100, altering the dynamics and prospects on bills ranging from stimulus to card check to cap-and-trade.

The Blagojevich disaster raises another broad issue with implications for the House and the Senate. We have known for some time that the Public Integrity Section of the Justice Department has made pursuit of corruption in Congress and in Washington a top priority, without regard to party. Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) and Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.) have felt the effect of this effort, as have Bob Ney and many others attached to Jack Abramoff and his shenanigans. After Blagojevich, my guess is that the efforts will ratchet up. We have other Members who have issues that may touch on these efforts but that certainly have serious ethics questions already raised. Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) is high on that list. It now appears the FBI is investigating allegations of payments from a benefactor of Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) to an insurance company employing his wife, with the alleged aim of getting some money to Coleman.

If ever there was a time when the House and Senate ethics processes needed to be active, credible and on the case, it is now. Thank heaven that the House had the guts to create an independent office to do preliminary investigations of charges of ethical violations; it is now up and will soon be running, with two terrific choices, former Reps. David Skaggs (D-Colo.) and Porter Goss (R-Fla.) heading it up. Too bad that the Senate was too arrogant and obtuse to do the same and adopt a comparable provision pushed hard by Obama (and Arizona Sen. John McCain). If the House and Senate don’t police their own, the wave of public corruption cases will create on both bodies a big stain, one we do not need in these perilous times.

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.