Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Something Is Rotten in the State of Illinois

Today, Democratic Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich was arrested by the FBI on corruption charges. The Bureau had been bugging his phones for weeks, listening in on conversations that revealed, among other illegal conspiracies, his plans to try to “sell” Obama’s Senate seat. “If I don’t get what I want and I’m not satisfied with it, then I’ll just take the Senate seat myself,” he was recorded saying. The practice of having the governor select a candidate to fill a Senate vacancy, which many states subscribe to, is inherently a sketchy one. I can understand the desire to circumvent a costly campaign and election whenever a Senator leaves office, and in most cases, a special election is held during the next Senate election cycle, regardless of how long the Senator had served, à la Joe Biden’s seat.

Indeed, Ruth Ann Minner of Delaware went through the same sorts of deliberations, and David Paterson of New York is in the process of choosing Hillary Clinton’s replacement—both are choices that have political implications and can be met with a great deal of opportunistic strategy. But Blagojevich’s arrest raises far more meaningful questions than those about Senatorial politics. The 74-page criminal complaint against the Governor describes a slew of crimes he committed. Here are some highlights:
  • Trading government jobs and contracts for contributions to his campaign fund. For example, he allegedly said he would hold up $8 million in financing to the Children’s Memorial Hospital unless he got a $50,000 contribution from its chief executive officer.
  • Negotiating with the Tribune Company, which owns both the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Cubs, to fire one of the governor’s critics on the Tribune’s editorial board in exchange for state financing of the sale of Wrigley Field
  • Envisioning ways to take advantage to the greatest extent possible of the open Senate seat, including:
  • Convincing Obama to ask Warren Buffet to give $10-$15 million to a foundation that Blagojevich would later head
  • Appointing himself, in order to avoid impeachment, facilitate his wife’s career as a lobbyist, pave the way for a 2016 run for the presidency, and/or increase his speech fees once he retires from politics.

Blagojevich already had the lowest approval ratings of any governor in the country due to previous charges of corruption. Illinois, and Chicago in particular, is a notoriously corrupt state. But it is exactly this type of appalling situation that should force legislators to sit down and write more stringent ethics, campaign finance, and lobbying laws. Our country’s politicians are, with few exceptions, immersed in special interests. Lobbyists with money have exponentially more political influence than ordinary citizens without money, and campaign contributors, especially in Blagojevich’s case, have exceptional influence as well (or at least those who want any influence must become campaign contributors).

Congress is obviously reticent to enact sweeping ethics bills, because, well, they’d essentially be restricting their own behavior. Campaign finance laws are especially weak, thanks in part to recent Supreme Court decisions that have ruled against stricter regulations under the guise of “First Amendment protection.” While I was disappointed to see Obama renege on his vow to accept public financing, it was clearly the right decision for his campaign to make, as there were few obstacles precluding McCain’s campaign from effectively using the much less restricted donations piling into the Republican National Committee's chest.

Barack Obama spent a lot of time on the campaign trail talking about lobbying and campaign finance reform, especially in the primaries (which, in my opinion, was part of both his and John Edwards’s appeal). And perhaps with the current economic crisis, such issues will be pushed to the backburner, as they are not entirely urgent. But Rod Blagojevich’s arrest should be a reminder to the country that we need to be addressing ethics in politics much more forcefully. A large part of the reason we’re so far behind on healthcare, climate change, energy independence, and now most evidently banking and financial regulation, is the potency of lobbyists over the hopes and needs of the true constituents in a democracy—the people. Only when a poor, ailing woman with no health insurance has as strong a voice in government as a bigwig insurance agency lobbyist can we truly say we are a democracy.

There is so much cynicism toward politics in our country, and with good reason. From Ted Stevens to William Jefferson to Rod Blagojevich, there seems to be little reason to trust those who are supposed to be working on our behalf. That all needs to change. And hopefully the one who’s been promising that change for two years will be able to deliver. But the proof will be in the pudding.

Photos: Rod Blagojevich (Washington Blade), Capitol for sale (CleanUpWashington.org), Obama and Clinton during a primary debate (Newsday.com), Change we can believe in (Flickr.com)

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