How Blago played it beautifully

A glacier moves faster than the Roland Burris story. It does appear, however, that tainted Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s nominee for the U.S. Senate is inching ever so closer to finally being seated in the Cave of Winds.

Which would be just as well for the Democrats, because this protracted farce has become a needless distraction.

One week ago, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid seemed prepared to repel the invader at all costs, vowing publicly that Blago’s choice of Burris “will ultimately not stand,” and last Sunday on NBC, Reid insisted that the Senate bigwigs can turn Burris away because they have the “legal authority” to do whatever they want. By yesterday, however, the same Senate bigwigs – apparently having been persuaded that they actually lack the legal authority, and that denying Burris would be an act of political stupidity – were in the midst of effectuating a gymnastic flipflop. Now they’re making nice to Burris, and signaling that the guy will probably be seated as long as he jumps through a few more hoops, none of which seem very high.

And before I chart the change in climate, let us pause to praise Rod Blagojevich. The governor may be a nitwit for talking trash on the phone at a time when he was under federal investigation and for failing to assume (or care) that his lines were tapped. He seems to be little more than a pay-for-play hustler. On the other hand – and this is indeed a form of praise – this guy is a savvy, gut-fighting political tactician. Naturally, he brings to mind a great quote from The Godfather (the sequel, actually), but I’ll spare you that until the final paragraph.

Perhaps it was morally wrong for him to name a successor to Barack Obama’s Senate seat, given the fact that he’s now an accused criminal. But legally, he had every right to do so. And politically, he played it smart by naming Burris, because there is not a shred of evidence suggesting that Burris traded anything with Blago to get the Senate nod. Burris appears to be clean; more importantly, he is African-American. Blago obviously calculated (correctly) that the Senate Democrats would look bad if they barred an African-American from serving in a chamber that currently has zero percent black membership. And for championing Burris, Blago now looks like a hero to the black community in his own backyard, which might come in handy if he winds up on trial and needs a friendly jury in Chicago.

We can’t necessarily assume that Blago pondered the U. S. Constitution prior to choosing Burris, but it just so happens that the U.S. Constitution works in his favor. Contrary to what Harry Reid claimed on NBC last weekend (“We determine who sits in the Senate…there’s clear legal authority for us to do whatever we want to do”), the text of the document limits the Senate’s ability to bar a prospective member. Article I, Section 3 basically states that the Senate has only three grounds for rejection: if the person is under 30 years of age, or if the person has been a U.S. citizen for less than nine years, or if the person doesn’t live in the state that he or she seeks to represent.

Moreover, the U.S. Supreme Court has limited the grounds for rejection. Back in the 1960s, House Democratic leaders tried to bar one of its own members, Adam Clayton Powell, after he was re-elected despite allegations of corruption. Powell sued and the high court ultimately took his side, writing that Congress could refuse to seat only those who violated the Constitution’s age, citizenship, and residency requirements. In other words, Congress was not even allowed to refuse seating to a lawmaker who was already tainted. Burris has no such taint. His main deficit appears to be his egomania (he already has purchased a mausoleum which will boast of his being the first black ever elected to statewide office in Illinois), but if egomania was a disqualifier, the Senate chamber would be empty.

Reid’s last fig leaf – which he apparently needs for clinging purposes, in order to make it appear that he has not been totally rolled by Blago – is his claim that Burris can’t be legally seated because the Illinois secretary of state has thus far refused to sign the governor’s certification paperwork. Reid insists that this signature is “vital to comply with Senate rules.” Apparently there’s a Senate rule, circa 1884, which requires this signature…but maybe not. The attorney general of Illinois is currently arguing that, under federal rules, such a signature is required only after a senator is elected, not appointed.

Just laying out the basics of the Burris case is sufficient to demonstrate its farcical dimensions. By whatever procedural means (committee meeting, floor vote, whatever), the Democrats would be wise to just seat the guy, move on to the far more pressing matters at hand, and grudgingly tip their hats to Blago for his crafty moves. Here’s a governor under threat of impeachment, and yet, at least in this episode, he’s close to getting his authority validated by the U.S. Senate.

Which naturally brings to mind what Corleone family lawyer Tom Hagen said about mobster Hyman Roth in Godfather II, after Roth manipulated some events on Capitol Hill. Shaking his head in admiration, Hagen lamented: “Roth. He played this one beautifully.”