Felonious Idiocy

Washington Matters

Felonious Idiocy

Sure, we all know power corrupts. But did we know it could turn reasonably sharp people into morons? How else can you explain Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich allegedly putting Barack Obama's vacant Senate seat up for sale  even though he has known for months that the feds were looking at -- and surely listening to -- his every move and that he was likely to be indicted on other corruption charges.

This is just the latest evidence that asking our kids to grow up to become elected civil servants is about the same as sending them off on a bicycle without helmet since the possibility of severe brain damage seems about as high. And perhaps this brain damage is somehow infectious -- after all, we keep tolerating this felonious idiocy and, worse, the atmosphere of entitlement that leads to it.

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If we needed reminders, how about this ... on the same day Blagojevich was put in cuffs, a Minnesota appeals court  told Sen. Larry Craig that, no, he could not get a do-over and take back his guilty plea for soliciting sex from an undercover cop in an airport men's room.

Then there's the case of Rep. William Jefferson, who has had bribery charges hanging over his head ever since a corruption probe turned up nearly a $100,000 in cash in his freezer. Yes, he lost a runoff election Saturday in New Orleans -- but it was big news precisely because it was unexpected. After all, he won re-election easily in 2006 despite the unexplained cold cash and bribery indictment.

Let's not forget Sen. Ted Stevens, who tried and failed to convince a jury that a remodeled house, expensive barbecue, plush lounge chair and other gifts were either the result of his wife forgetting to pay some bills or the largesse of a good friend who just by coincidence was a big Alaska oil man. Stevens got beat, too, but the election was so close it took days to decide.

The thing is, I believe Stevens when he says he doesn't believe he did anything wrong. So, too, with Rep. Charlie Rangel, whose chairmanship of the Ways and Means Committee is in danger because of a variety of apparent ethics lapses. They have become so accustomed to the special treatment they receive, that they no longer see even gross favors or blatant attempts at currying favor as special. It's worth mentioning that the prosecutor who indicted Blagojevich was the same one who successfully prosecuted former White House aide Scooter Libby for obstruction of justice -- and did not serve a day of jail time because his sentence was commuted by President Bush.

But, assuming the charges hold up, Blagojevich's case is certainly special. Even with the prosecutor breathing down his neck, he simply wasn't going to pass up a once in a lifetime opportunity to leverage a Senate seat into new wealth. The thing that's especially appalling is that Blagojevich has dragged President-elect Obama into this mess. There is no evidence that Obama or his team had any role or knowledge in the governor's plans, but they'll certainly have to answer all the questions that arise out of this to leave no doubt.

But there may be a bright side. The Senate selling case may give Obama an opening to discuss and tackle corruption and the tolerance of it -- a major theme of his campaign. Of course he'll denounce Blagojevich as he lays out whatever he must about their ties, but he can also go a step further and demand not just that Blagojevich step down (which as a former Illinois lawmaker he has standing to do) but that Rangel step aside, too, while the Ethics Committee reviews his case. And he can tie those calls together with a package of lobbying and campaign finance reforms that would move temptation and opportunity further out of reach. Unfortunately, as a constitutional law professor he's bound to know it's illegal to make idiocy by public officials a felony.