Slate contributor Edward McClelland was online at Washingtonpost.com to chat with readers about Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich's appointment of Roland Burris to fill Barack Obama's Senate seat. An unedited transcript of the chat follows.
Edward McClelland: Good morning, everyone. I've been writing about Rod Blagojevich and the Illinois senate seat crisis from Chicago. I'm ready to answer your questions on that issue, and other aspects of Chicago politics.
Washington, D.C.: The most important question is, can the Senate block the appointment? I seem to recall a case where the House refused to "seat" a corrupt member from Harlem in the 70s. What procedural options do they have?
Edward McClelland: The case you're referring to is Powell v. McCormack. In 1967, the House refused to seat Rep. Adam Clayton Powell of New York. Powell took his case to the Supreme Court, which ruled that Congress could only be the judge of a member's constitutional qualifications—in the case of a senator, whether he's 30 years old, nine years a citizen, and a resident of his state.
The Senate could refuse to seat Burris and invite a court challenge, hoping the current Supreme Court would give it more latitude in determining its' members qualifications.
Tying up the appointment in court could keep the seat empty until Blagojevich is removed from office. Then current Lt. Gov. Patrick Quinn could make a competing appointment, which the Senate would seat. That, of course, might also be challenged in court by Burris.
Oakland, Calif.: Please comment on the precedent set by Blagojevich's actions. Can the governor be removed, and if so what are the guidelines? And is his appointment of a replacement for Senator Obama legal?
Edward McClelland: I think Blagojevich's action is legal. He's the sitting governor of Illinois, which gives him the authority to appoint a senator. Until he resigns or is removed from office, he can exercise all his powers.
It's interesting that nobody has challenged Blagojevich's authority to sign bills or pardon criminals, which he has done since his arrest. But there's a political element to this Senate appointment. Illinois Democrats don't want be stuck running on the same ticket as "Blagojevich's senator" in 2010. That'll be a tremendous issue for the Republicans. And Senate Democrats want to help them avoid that.
The Illinois General Assembly is already taking steps to remove Blagojevich. A committee has been appointed to decide whether to recommend impeachment to the full House. If Blagojevich is impeached, he would be tried by the state Senate. A two-thirds majority is required to convict. Same as the procedure for a president.
Falls Church, Va.: Did Blago have to act before Jan. 1 for any particular reason? Or was he just looking to make this boring holiday week a little more interesting?
Edward McClelland: Blagojevich had to act before Jan. 6. Otherwise, Illinois would begin the 111th Congress short a senator. I think he wanted to do this before the holiday because we have a long weekend coming up, and Burris needed a week to prepare.
Bethesda, Md.: How will the fact that Mr. Burris has accepted Blagojevich's appointment, and thus gotten himself involved in this affair, affect Mr. Burris' reputation and political career?
Edward McClelland: Burris no longer had a political career in Illinois. He was an uninspiring but honest state office holder in the '80s and '90s, but since then, he had lost three races for governor and a race for mayor. Burris has long been looking for that last big office. He already has a tombstone which lists all of his accomplishments. He left a blank spot in the lower right hand corner, hoping to fill it with "governor." I think he'll be just as happy to put "senator" there.
The view of some is that Burris' ego has allowed Blagojevich to use him as a dupe here. Burris does like to refer to himself in the third person. He named his children Roland II and Rolando. I think he'll try to run for a full term in 2010. He's a politician, and it's more exciting than reviewing minority contracts for the tollway authority.
Arlington, Va.: What's the mood like in Chicago these days regarding this mess? It must be troubling to be buoyed by Obama and then deflated by Blago all at once.
Edward McClelland: For five weeks, Chicago was the beacon of the world, the city that gave America Barack Obama. Now we're back to our reputation for political sleaze.
Those are the bright and dark sides of Illinois politics. On the one hand, we lead the nation in racial progress. We produced Abraham Lincoln, Barack Obama and more black statewide officials than anyone else. On the other hand, we have this freewheeling, pay to play political culture that produced Rod Blagojevich. So we have both the best and the worst politicians in the country, and yeah, we're a little proud of our colorful politics.
Washington, D.C.: What is the latest on the Obama-Blagojevich connection? The only thing I heard reported by the media during these past weeks were repetitions of the statements made by Obama and his advisers that there were no "inappropriate" conversations between Obama's advisers and Blagojevich. However, that implies that there were conversations between the two. I appreciate that Obama and his advisers believe that the conversations were not inappropriate, but that is their opinion. Shouldn't we see transcripts or more details about the conversations that took place so we can judge for ourselves?
Edward McClelland: I think we'd all like to see transcripts of those conversations, but so far, U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald is holding them back. That's even complicating the work of the General Assembly, which wants to use the tapes in impeachment proceedings.
Obama and Blagojevich were never close. Blagojevich was seen as shady even before this episode, and Obama didn't invite him to the convention, or to Grant Park. Obama definitely took an interest in who would fill his old Senate seat, and used Rahm Emanuel to communicate Valerie Jarrett's name to Blagojevich. Actually, what I find inappopriate about that situation is that we had the soon-to-be leader of the executive branch trying to influence an appointment to the legislative branch. I also think it was inappropriate for Obama to back the Senate in refusing to seat Burris. He's the president-elect now. He has to respect the separation of powers and let the Senate police itself.
Alexandria, Va.: What can you tell us about Burris? Is he Senate material? (Whatever that is these days...)
Edward McClelland: Burris has followed the same path as plenty of other senators. He spent 16 years in statewide office, first as comptroller, then as attorney general. Some people think this makes him a political hack or a party regular. He won't be the only one. While he's not as gifted an orator or as deep a thinker as Obama, he's got more political experience, and a broader knowledge of Illinois. He grew up in Downstate Centralia.
Bethesda, Md.: What is Blagojevich thinking? Really. It seems like maybe the guy is delusional. Why hasn't he stepped down yet?
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