Hate the game, not the players. —A colleague of mine’s favorite saying

addendum_2

The absolute ludicrousness of the above disclaimer should be evident to anyone. I don’t mean what it says but the fact that it needed to be issued at all is what’s ludicrous. The great State of Illinois needs to issue bonds and, because of the absolutely shameful activities of the governor, it also needs to issue disclaimers about the bonds themselves, saying that the chief executive of the state has no involvement with them.

To quote Keeanu Reeves: “Whoa!”

The fact that Illinois governors get in trouble is not terribly surprising just based on their records. George Ryan, Blago’s immediate predecessor in office, is currently in the Federal penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana. Governor Dan Walker did time for bank fraud, which at least he had the decency to commit after he left office. It goes on: All told, six Illinois governors have been charged with felonies, mostly related to tax evasion. Three have been convicted of felonies and served time. Let’s hope(?) that a fourth is coming soon. If Blago’s really lucky he can get tips from George Ryan over in Terre Haute and maybe even share a cell.

Illinois is not alone in having crooks in the governor’s mansion: Louisiana governor Edwin Edwards comes to mind as a rogue in office. He is currently doing time and due for release in 2011; perhaps he too could give Blago advice. And everybody’s favorite, Sarah “As God is my witness, I thought turkeys could fly” Palin seems to be up to some Alaskan adventures, though these probably don’t rise to the level of actual crime. However, Sarah and Blago do share a general, ah, idiom of hairspray populism, delusions of grandeur, general dislike for their current offices and willingness to play fast and loose with the rules.

I don’t even think Illinois is the most dysfunctional state. The system works in some respects: The current budget shortfall in Springfield looks nothing like the insanity coming out of Sacramento these days, such as the mind-blowing $41 billion deficit and need to write IOUs starting in February. I should note that the system works in no small part because the 1970 Illinois constitution expressly forbids most deficit spending, though of course that didn’t stop George Ryan and the legislature from spending like drunken sailors because the state was running a surplus back at the end of his tenure in office.

In every government on earth is some trace of human weakness, some germ of corruption and degeneracy, which cunning will discover, and wickedness insensibly open, cultivate, and improve. —Thomas Jefferson

I have no particular reason to believe that people in politics are especially clean, but Blago—and too many of his predecessors in office—are something special. There are plenty of Illinois politicians who have been dedicated public servants not cut from the same bolt of cheap, tawdry and rat-gnawed cloth as Blago. I believe President-Elect Obama to be one (let’s hope so), and politicians such as Ray Lahood, the late, great Paul Douglas, and former Governer Jim Edgar were.

The problem is precisely the fact that too many of Blago’s predecessors are special too, which makes me think there’s got to be something bigger going on. When the same problem shows up time and time again, as Larry Sabato says it’s not the individuals, it’s the system.

In fact, the entire point of a democratic republic as set out by Jefferson, Madison, and pals back in the late 18th Century recognizes this fact and puts restraints on the power of one individual. The English system they saw themselves reforming indeed had restraints on the power of the king—a matter settled during the century preceding starting with the execution of Charles I to the supremacy of Parliament established by Sir Robert Walpole, just not enough.

Scott Turow, former prosecutor, author and, ironically enough, appointed the Chair of an ethics board by Blago had this to say:

Even by Chicago’s picaresque standards, Tuesday’s developments are mind-boggling…. All of this news comes with personal chagrin for me because I was Governor Blagojevich’s first appointment to the Illinois Executive Ethics Commission, a body created his first year in office. (For the record, I have never made a campaign donation to him.) The commission judges ethics complaints against state officials, supervises ethics instruction, and tries to carry out an overall mandate to improve the ethical climate in Illinois. … Ethics reform in Illinois is often regarded as an oxymoron, and I admit that the commission’s arduous efforts to strengthen our ethics laws have met with little success. Speaking solely for myself, I hope the governor’s arrest galvanizes public outrage and at last speeds reform.

First of all, gee thanks Scott, for forcing me to take all those stupid mandatory “ethics tests”! But that bit of pique aside, what would it take? Turow goes on:

One change that is obviously indispensable is overhauling the campaign contribution laws in Illinois, where there are literally no limits on political donations — neither how big they can be or who can give them. The lone exception is a law, passed over a Blagojevich veto, that takes effect Jan. 1, prohibiting large state contractors from donating to the executive officer who gave them the business. Otherwise, anybody — union officials, regulated industries, corporations, lobbyists — can throw as much money as they like at Illinois politicians.

In short, the Illinois political system at the local level is awash with money. In fact, it’s the money in the system that let Blago, given to him by his now-estranged father-in-law, Chicago alderman Richard Mell—defeat his vastly more qualified 2002 primary opponents Roland Burris and Paul Vallas, by buying lots and lots of ads downstate that the relatively poorer Burris and Vallas simply couldn’t match. So take that conservatives next time you oppose campaign finance reform!

Most local politics is subject to a relatively constant level of corruption of the beak-dipping variety. When the money’s floating around the way it is in Illinois, where the name “pay to play” is commonly known, you have to expect a higher level of corruption. If the system gets to to the point that you have to expect heroic virtue—I’m talking the “wins the Medal of Honor, saves kids from burning building, donates kidney to a stranger” kind—to resist not just beak dipping but wholesale feasting on carrion, third world land is not far behind.

OK AM, I’ll agree, it’s completely transparent, in that everyone who knows much of anything knows that state politics runs the way it does. Everyone knew Comrade Stalin ruled the Soviet Union with an iron fist, too. I’ll even agree that other states run this way, to varying degrees, but that particular argument is no different than the one used by corrupt pols to justify their behavior: “Everyone else is doing it, so why shouldn’t I?” Since when does other people’s bad behavior excuse your own? That is the argument of a moral coward deluding himself about things he damn well knows are wrong but wants to do anyway, or his enabler.

And so what about transparency? What’s NOT transparent or accountable is decision making because they are basically made by a cabal of a small number of party leaders, we’re really never sure why they do what they do and can’t do anything about it even if we did know because you can darn well bet their districts are solid. I could go on but in short, Illinois government has all the worst features of a parliamentary system—heavy duty party control with its attendant lack of individual accountability—without the best part, i.e., the no confidence vote and clear party accountability, which would solve this whole damn problem right now. Blago would simply be gone and ready to face the music. In fact, he would have been gone a while ago when it became evident that the Democratic caucus lost faith in him.

This is serious shit and hopefully the fact that Obama knows this, much like FDR with respect to Tammany Hall in New York City, will help concentrate minds in Springfield wonderfully, but I suspect that it’ll take a more than a few Patrick Fitzgerald-provided hangings first and, sadly, have deep faith in the resiliency of the Illinois machine pols, even for whom Blago is an aberration.

I linked the nice post by Larry Sabato above, but here’s a summary of five “principles” of corruption:

  1. Corruption has no ideology, no partisan coloration.
  2. While corruption is inevitable and a constant, its precise manifestations are ever changing.
  3. Corruption flourishes in secrecy and wherever the people and the press tolerate it.
  4. A system of government or politics can be at least as corrupting as human nature itself.
  5. Any crusade to eradicate corruption is naive and doomed to failure, but corruption can be controlled and limited.
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