Roland Burris Has a Lot of Questions About How the Federal Government Works

Created: October 26, 2009 14:20 | Last updated: July 31, 2020 00:00

I’ve just gotten my hands on the transcript of last Thursday’s Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs hearing on czars. There’s a lot in there, but the first thing I want to highlight is the dramatically incoherent testimony of Sen. Roland Burris (D-Ill.). I don’t know where to start with it. But Burris, in his short time on the Hill, has been plagued as much by the scandal surrounding his appointment as the rumors that he isn’t up to the job. This hearing didn’t help. Studded with phrases like “this is the meat that caused us political scientists to even exist” and “I’m certainly going read each and every one of you all’s testimony,” Burris’s questioning is almost impossible to understand.

By appointing Burris to inject racial politics into the battle to save his job, former Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D-Ill.) saddled Senate Democrats with one of the most dizzingly incoherent politicians in America, and threw the incredibly safe Illinois Senate seat open for a possible Republican takeover. Burris’s service in the Senate may one day be summed up by this accidental poem:

Thank you, Mr. Chairman, this is — this is — I mean this is. Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I’m done.

Read the full horror:

BURRIS: This has — being a constitutional and political science student, I mean, this is Political Science 101 or Political Science, maybe, 1000. The panel’s just been terrific.

And I have so many thoughts just rolling through my head, I don’t even know where to start. I mean, this is — this is the meat that caused us political scientists to even exist, because you’re dealing with these major issues of the separation of powers and the creation of this country and whether or not you want your president to really have the powers that you granted it, and whether or not the Congress, which is on similar or equal footing, can then control or muscle in on those powers of the president.

Based on the fact that — especially the House of Representatives, since they stand for re-election every two years and senators much longer, you — you have this constant power struggle as who is really representing the people and what that representation is going to mean when it gets to the — the policy decision that’s going to impact the public.

And I don’t know whether or not — I don’t think you can come up with a definition dealing with this. Having served in a governor’s cabinet and having dealt with those staffers, it almost depends on how strong the cabinet member is as to just what and how he’s going to deal with those situations and those circumstances.

Because having experienced that on the state level, and knowledgeable to some extent on the federal level — I was very close to the — to the Carter administration and had good insights into the workings of the White House and all of those decisions that were being made and how the gatekeepers really sought to filter the information that got to the president.

Every president’s going to go through it. I don’t even know how we in the Congress can legally — I mean, I heard the distinguished ranking member say that we passed a law. We can pass a law and say there’s going to be a position in there, but I don’t think the Congress can tell the president who to put in that position.

I mean, if we do that, then I think that we’re violating the separation of powers. I mean, this is what we get into. And you can create a position. What happens if — what happens if the president says, “I don’t want to appoint anybody as secretary of state. I’m going to use the undersecretary as an acting secretary”?

Is there a law that would require us or require the president to appoint a secretary of state? Is there? Is there?

CASEY: A law that requires the president to appoint a secretary of state?


CASEY: Specifically, there would not be a law requiring him to do that. Now, of course, if he wants the functions that you vested in a secretary of state performed, he — he probably has to do…


BURRIS: But there is no law that says he has to even appoint a secretary of state, is that — am I correct?


BURRIS: There’s a statute that says there’s a position — a secretary of state position…

CASEY: Right, right — shall be appointed in the following — yes — I’m unaware of any…


BURRIS: But is there a law that says the president has to make that appointment?

CASEY: Not that I’m aware of.

BURRIS: That’s the difficulty that we’re dealing with here. Is there a law that says that the president can appoint an acting person and how long can that person act?

CASEY: Yes. There is actually a law that governs…


BURRIS: OK. How long can that person act?

CASEY: It is — I would actually have to look at the statute but it’s a matter of months, it’s not…

BURRIS: A matter of months, so that person…


BURRIS: Otherwise, then, does the authority then leave that…


BURRIS: … that position?


BURRIS: And who then assumes that authority in that position if the president refuses to send the name up for confirmation to us?

CASEY: Well, yes, there — there are various — many circumstances in which an acting official can continue to serve, especially if they are the — the normal principal deputy of the office that — that you’re talking about.

BURRIS: And what about these midnight appointments, as we hear? You know, the judges in the interim time, or Congress in — in recess…

CASEY: Recess appointments.

BURRIS: The recess appointments. And they serve for only a certain period of time, and — and otherwise…

CASEY: Right.

BURRIS: … that person would have to leave the position and — I mean, you can see all the questions that are just flowing through my process here, as we try to talk about czars and policy-makers. This is even bigger than — than czars.

I mean — you’re — you’re wrestling with this — this just wonderful document that’s created 200 and plus years ago that created our entity and this thing called separation of powers.

We haven’t even gotten into the judiciary side of this, which could also raise a whole lot of other questions.

So, Mr. President (sic), I really don’t have many questions, I just — I got more questions than I have answers, Mr. Chairman, in reference to this, because I — I just sit here and listen to the experts talk, and every time there was a statement made, there’s a — there’s a new question come to my mind, well, what about this? What ifs — What if? What if? And — and so, I find this so fascinating, and I’m — I’m certainly going read each and every one of you all’s testimony.

I don’t know how I’m going to get back to — to, you know, the hearing again to try to follow up on this but, Mr. Chairman, I would imagine that our grandchildren are going to be still wrestling with this same problem.

I don’t know whether or not — given us wanting to have a weak president who’s going to kowtow to Congress or us having this — a weak Congress who’s going to let a president run all over us, which you see in some of these cases.

I mean if, you know, if — if you say that we’re going to appropriate some money, then they don’t want to spend it, you know, they don’t spend it.

And you just heard what my distinguished senator from Utah says, that who the gatekeeper is to stop the information from getting to the president. So, you know, I’m more frustrated than I am — with questions.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman, this is — this is — I mean this is. Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I’m done.