Why play it safe? Let’s roll the dice, go way out on a limb and put our credibility on the line with this bodacious pre-election prediction:
Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. wins another term in the 2nd Congressional District, though he has been MIA since June and his 500,000 constituents still don’t know when or whether he’ll be healthy enough to start representing them in the Capitol Hill battle for federal programs, services and dollars.
We could be wrong here — there’s always a minuscule chance of a monumental upset. Consider unknown Republican Michael Patrick Flanagan’s improbable 1994 victory in Chicago’s 5th Congressional District over Democratic powerhouse Dan Rostenkowski, who got buried by a corruption indictment and a national GOP tsunami that swept the Democrats out of congressional control that year.
That was Flanagan’s "perfect storm" moment, but it’s an unlikely forecast for Jackson’s unknown challengers, despite the queasy feeling many 2nd District residents have expressed about their options, and the arguably more troubling general issue of long, health-related congressional absences.
Jackson has been sidelined by a plethora of medical, marital, political and emotional problems. Sen. Mark Kirk, Illinois’ other incapacitated elected official, has been shelved even longer by a serious stroke. And out in Arizona, former Rep. Gabby Giffords faced a torturous recovery after a politically motivated shooting.
Their constituents were left without representation and without a protocol for protecting a basic democratic right: A voice in Washington’s corridors of power.
Presidents are backed up by vice presidents, governors by lieutenant governors, and even mayors have vice mayors to step in when the boss is disabled. But not members of Congress, for whom there is no provision in the law for a temporary replacement.
State statutes clearly delineate ground rules for appointments or special elections to fill congressional vacancies that result from death, resignation or incarceration. But not a temporary incapacitation, even when "temporary" feels like "interminable."
I experienced the visceral, real-time impact of Jackson’s absence several weeks ago when I gave a luncheon speech on the topic of better government to a mostly Democratic audience in the 2nd District, and many of the attendees openly lamented their electoral dilemma.
Most had supported Jackson in the past, were comfortable with his record and "felt his pain," to borrow a line from Bill Clinton. But they were uncomfortable with the new unknowns — the length of Jackson’s absence and the inexperience of his opponents.
I told them the Better Government Association’s status as a nonpartisan, nonprofit civic watchdog prevents me from evaluating candidates, but not from calling on Congress to evaluate the quandary in its next session. That’s in our "good government" wheelhouse.
Why not consider letting every senator and representative designate a "temporary replacement" for emergencies like these? Perhaps a chief of staff or another top aide to participate in committee hearings, caucus meetings and appropriation discussions. Maybe even vote if it’s constitutional.
We can’t prevent an unexpected calamity that sidelines an elected representative. But we should be able to prevent an unintended consequence that’s also calamitous: Hundreds of thousands of constituents left on the sidelines of democracy.
Andy Shaw is president and CEO of the Better Government Association. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (312) 386-9097.