Let it be.
People are understandably outraged that Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich -- not far removed from his arrest on corruption charges amid allegations he wanted to sell his appointment to the U.S. Senate seat that Barack Obama is vacating -- went ahead and named someone anyway, after both national Democratic Party and state officials from Obama on down warned him not to. Blago's pick is 71-year-old Illinois career pol Ronald Burris, a one-time rival of the incumbent governor who is the state's former attorney general.
Political leaders in both Washington and Springfield have vowed to do everything in their power to block Blago and this block Burris.
But legally, they can't. They're better off letting Burris be a senator for two years.
After a landmark 1969 Supreme Court ruling, it's pretty clear that -- despite Harry Reid's bluster -- the Senate can only block Burris if he's not a qualified U.S. citizen (he is) or if he was improperly elected or appointed (he wasn't.) As for talk that the Illinois secretary of state would not certify his appointment, that, too, is a power he does not have. Yes, the idea that Blagojevich is appointing a senator after he was arrested for trying to sell the same seat is an affront to political decency.
But if the Senate tries not to seat him, our nation's leaders will be squandering valuable time and money on a legal fight they cannot win. And the battle over Burris wouldn't just overshadow the new administration's efforts to get the economy moving again. The world community, after seeing a sliver of its faith in America restored in recent days, will be appalled to watch a bunch of mostly white guys trying to keep the only African-American (now that Obama has resigned) from joining their club.
Or they can let it be.
And then the Democrats can do three things:
1) Count on Sen. Burris as a solid vote for economic recovery and other legislation that's needed to move the nation forward-- but count on him for little or nothing else. Make Burris the 1-800-Safe-Auto of U.S. senators, offering the him the legislative equivalent of the minimum coverage allowed under the law.
2) Begin searching for a 2010 Senate candidate who is not named Roland Burris and rally behind him or her as early as possible. There's obviously no special mandate that the new candidate be an African-American (Burris' appointment would mean that Illinois has sent 3 blacks to the Senate since the 1990s, while the other 49 states combined have sent a grand total of....zero), only that it be the most qualified person.
3) Begin working immediately on the 28th Amendment to the Constitution, which would strip the power of filling Senate vacancies from governors and give that job to the voters, where it belongs. We now hold special elections for every vacant House seat, after all. Yes, statewide elections are costly -- but the current system's cost to democracy is greater. And the election of U.S. senators has been a constantly evolving process in this country, anyway.
Until the beginning of this century, most senators were not chosen directly by the voters but indirectly by state legislators, creating the easily manipulated boss-ruled legislative body that condoned the 19th Century big-money abuses of the Gilded Age (sound familiar?). It required the 17th Amendment in 1913 to ensure that senators were directly elected by the people of each state.
In recent weeks, we've seen several examples of the folly -- in a nation that rightly cherishes its checks and balances -- of handing unchecked power to one person. We've seen the sad spectacle of President Bush pardoning a major GOP donor and then trying frantically to unpardon him, and now we've seen a criminally charged governor making a Senate appointment.
You have to wonder why a nation that was founded in rebellion against monarchy would have granted such broad authority in the first place. But you have to wonder more why we have not used our Constitutional tools to limit them or take them away.