Friday, December 12, 2008

Take It Steady, Illinois

The current political situation in Illinois is most regrettable. From information publicly available, the state’s governor appears to have been caught red-handed engaging in blatant political graft. (Some have suggested that this is just politics as usual in Chicago, except that this time the sleazy politician is experiencing some negative consequences.)

Despite the damning evidence already made public, the governor maintains his innocence. Justice demands that he should have his day in court to properly determine guilt or innocence under the law. But it appears to most political insiders and average John Q. Publics that: 1) the governor should be removed from office, and 2) his political career is pretty much toast. He currently enjoys only an approval rating of eight percent among his constituents.

Nevertheless, the governor has refused widespread calls from members of his own party (including the President Elect) to resign. The Illinois Attorney General has invoked a statute requesting the state’s highest court to declare the governor unfit to serve (see AP story). The statute is similar to one we have in Utah that is designed to replace the governor if he/she should become physically or mentally incapacitated.

I believe that this is an imprudent course to pursue. The statute clearly applies to real physical or mental impairments, not to ethical lapses. Twisting the law to apply to the current situation would create a moral hazard where it would become easier to remove a political opponent through a back door method.

Given that this is a political issue involving a political office, I believe it would be healthier if the matter were handled politically, as well as transparently as possible. The appropriate course is for the legislature to impeach the governor; something the legislature appears quite eager to do.

The AG argues that impeachment would be far too slow and hints that there is concern about what kind of havoc the governor might wreak in the meantime. She argues that “government has become "paralyzed" with its ability to borrow money to pay bills on hold” (see Reuters story).

That’s a bit over the top. But even if it were accurate, impeachment is still the proper and prudent track. It would be more just and would ensure the broadest level of public support of the final outcome. And no matter the outcome, it appears that the governor will eventually face federal consequences for his actions, so there is a good hope that justice will be done.

At any rate, the governor and his wife are now regarded as very unsympathetic characters, given their raw language and verbally abusive treatment, as revealed in taped phone conversations. That is a social cost that may never be fully paid even in a lifetime.

The pros of getting this unsavory matter handled quickly are obvious. It’s a national embarrassment that would be more quickly out of the headlines. Public confidence in the governor is nearly nonexistent. His replacement would have a chance to establish a firm footing before the next election. Political insiders would like nothing better than to just get back to business as usual.

Of national significance, the governor’s replacement would more quickly be able to fill the President Elect’s vacated U.S. Senate seat in probably the cleanest manner ever (since every step would occur under high national public scrutiny). There is also a threat that the affair could besmirch the President Elect and/or members of his transition team. The quicker it goes away, the better for him and them.

Despite the arguments in favor of rapid action, the wheels of a democratic republic rarely move rapidly. This is by design, to ensure full debate, broad consensus, and purposeful action. Although rare occasion requires swift action, often when our political bodies act in haste the results are far worse than the effects of political lethargy. History shows that all such quick actions should be regarded with great suspicion, even if some are finally determined to be necessary.

I do not envy the people of Illinois right now. But handling this sordid political issue in a deliberate and transparent fashion might offer a fine opportunity to do some serious political housecleaning. They might actually ask what needs to be done to change a political climate where 20% of their governors during this past century have gone to jail and where it is not uncommon for the dead to vote. Maybe they could set a good example for the rest of us.

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