An Empty Suit For an Empty Seat

Is Roland Burris qualified for the U.S. Senate?


Wall Street titan Bernard Madoff proved you can take an outstanding reputation and ruin it overnight. Now Roland Burris has demonstrated that even a mediocre reputation can be instantly destroyed.

Burris is the prototypical time-serving career politician who owes his success to being simultaneously ambitious and bland. He has never been one to challenge the status quo, but no one underestimates his self-esteem. The two Burris children, after all, are named Roland and Rolanda.

The result of his immodesty has been a persistent hunger for offices that most people thought beyond his abilities. He has lost races for mayor of Chicago, U.S. senator, and governor of Illinois (three times).

Burris' chief claim to fame until this week was his 12-year term as state comptroller, a job whose significance can be measured by the fact that few Illinoisans could identify the current occupant (Dan Hynes). Even among accountants, Burris left few strong impressions, but he also never gave any prosecutor grounds to indict him, which is not something Illinois voters take for granted.

When the news broke that Gov. Rod Blagojevich was trying to auction off Barack Obama's Senate seat, Burris called his behavior "appalling." After the governor appointed him to fill the vacancy, though, the onetime comptroller-for-life lost interest in the scandal. "I have no comment on what the governor's circumstance is," he demurred.

But logic has never been his strong suit. A longtime advocate of a national handgun ban, Burris organized Chicago's first Gun Turn-in Day in 1993. But when he ran for governor the following year, he admitted that he owned a handgun ("for protection,") and did not hand it over to police as he urged others to do.

"He had simply forgotten about it," his spokesman said at the time—a claim that, if believable, suggested Burris was not exactly the model for conscientious gun ownership. "Honey, didn't I used to have a pistol around here? Any idea where it might be?"

But now he finds himself chosen for a body where his ego would be among equals. Burris attested Tuesday that he is "the most qualified person in the state of Illinois." Besides that disinterested testament, he was hailed as "a good and honest man" by a benefactor who faces not only indictment but impeachment.

U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush, a fellow African-American, couldn't resist a racial appeal, urging Blagojevich's critics "to not hang or lynch the appointee as you try to castigate the appointer." The governor rewarded the effort by saying, "That was excellent, Bobby," which may not stand as the former Black Panther's proudest moment. The overall effect was to confirm that Roland Burris is to racism what Harriet Miers was to sexism—not a victim.

Blagojevich insisted he had the obligation to make an appointment, rather than "deprive the people of Illinois of their appropriate voice and votes in the United States Senate." A lot of his constituents would just as soon wait, but if the governor felt it imperative to fill the seat, he could have offered some compromise solution—say, inviting Democrats in the General Assembly to recommend a candidate. That option, however, would have meant forgoing about the only power the governor has left, except the power to make citizens wonder why on earth they ever let him on the ballot.

The appointment evoked no warm feelings among Democrats in the U.S. Senate, who vowed to reject anyone chosen by Blagojevich. Burris, his allies, and some legal experts insist the senators lack that constitutional authority, and the U.S. Supreme Court's 1969 ruling that the House could not refuse to seat Adam Clayton Powell suggests they may be right.

But they overlook some pertinent facts. One is that the Powell case took more than two years to resolve, which doesn't bode well for someone aspiring to fill the last two years of Obama's term. The second is that even if Senate Democrats can't legally keep him out, they can render him irrelevant.

Most of the work of Congress is done in committee, and the Constitution doesn't say a senator is entitled to serve on committees—in fact, it doesn't even mention committees. Once on Capitol Hill, Burris may have nothing to do but bask in his new title, show up for an occasional floor vote, and cash his paycheck.

For that job, come to think of it, Burris is perfect.