Even before the Illinois House impeached him on Friday, it was way too late for Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich to salvage his reputation. But there's still time to do something positive for the citizens of Illinois before the trap door springs open under him:
Blagojevich should be allowed to take advantage of a state constitutional provision that allows him to "temporarily" give up the powers of his office. Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn then would become acting governor, and the General Assembly could get to work on the state's massive financial problems — including patching a $750 million hole in the current year's budget, hundreds of millions in unpaid bills and a projected 2010 budget deficit of $2 billion.
The sweetener for the governor — and Blagojevich likes his sweets — is that he'd get to keep his $155,600-a-year salary for a while. As federal wiretaps disclosed in December, Blagojevich has serious financial concerns, one of the reasons he allegedly was looking to profit from selling President-elect Barack Obama's vacated U.S. Senate seat. The governor is going to have serious legal bills with which to contend.
In return for Blagojevich stepping aside, the Illinois Senate could agree to postpone his trial on the bill of impeachment passed by the Illinois House of Representatives on Friday. The legislature could argue — correctly — that it had more important work to do. The sooner Blagojevich is out of power, even if it's "temporarily," the better off the citizens will be.
Alas, we have no illusions that either the legislature or the governor will take this advice. Blagojevich, in yet another bizarre performance for TV cameras on Friday afternoon, said he's staying on the job. Meanwhile, bloodlust is raging in the legislature.
Blagojevich had very few allies in the House and Senate before his arrest on federal corruption charges. He has even fewer now. The House impeachment vote was 114-1, with Chicago Democrat Milt Patterson the lone holdout. He said he didn't think impeachment was his job.
Not so, said Rep. Jack Franks, D-Woodstock: "It's our duty to clean up the mess and stop the freak show that's become Illinois government."
Said Rep. Susan Mendoza, D-Chicago, "It's been an ugly and shameful spectacle. Rod Blagojevich, you should be ashamed of yourself ... take your sullied place in history."
For all of the rhetorical posturing on Friday, the special House committee that recommended impeachment, for the most part, did its work calmly and dispassionately. The committee's 59-page report convincingly laid out the case for impeachment, citing historical precedent from around the nation that an impeachable offense isn't necessarily a criminal offense.
"It would, in fact, be unreasonable to limit impeachable offenses to criminal conduct," the report said. "An impeachment inquiry is not a criminal proceeding and its purpose is not punitive. Rather, impeachment is a remedial proceeding to protect the public from an officer who has abused his position of trust."
The Illinois committee then carefully laid out all the allegations against Blagojevich, predominantly those made by U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald in December. Unfortunately, the House committee then used the impeachment report to settle a few old scores, throwing in a litany of old complaints against the governor for "abuse of power" in ignoring legislative oversight and procedures.
Compared with trying to sell a Senate seat or shaking down a children's hospital, things such as taking money from "line-item appropriations unrelated to the state efficiency initiative" hardly rank as major offenses. Reopening the feud gave Blagojevich one more chance to do his "man of the people" act before TV cameras on Friday.
Those of us in this part of the country have grown tired of that act; state government was in paralysis long before Patrick Fitzgerald planted his bugs. Responsible leaders in Illinois must do what they can to get rid of the governor as soon as they can — buying him off if possible, but trying him quickly in the Senate if necessary.
REPRINTED FROM THE ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH.