Paul Jacob

Why do career politicians even bother with elections? Well, increasingly they don't.

After all, to professional politicians, elections are dangerous events that place their expert rule at risk. Best to avoid them altogether. Who knows when we proles might throw, as ABC's Peter Jennings put it in 1994, "a temper tantrum"?

Last week, New Jersey's governor brought his reign of corruption to an abrupt end. But not too abrupt. He delayed his resignation until after this November's election. Why? To prevent an election. Not because the special election thus triggered would suffer from a low turnout, but rather because the turnout would be higher than usual.

The governor's delayed resignation means an election postponed for 14 months. So, for over a year, the highest-ranking government official in the state will not be chosen by the voters at all, but, in effect, by the disgraced Governor McGreevey and his henchmen.

Now, this week, the anything-but-a-fair-vote commandos are at work in Illinois. Apparently, in Illinois's third congressional district, the king ? er, the congressman ? one Bill Lipinski, gets to pick the next congressman. Well, actually, Lipinski and his buddies on the Democrat's third district slate-making committee get to vote. Conveniently, this committee is made up of men whose families, according to the Chicago Tribune, "have dominated Southwest Side politics for generations."

But do partisan Democratic voters get a say? Heavens, no. Voters only get a chance to ratify these back-room maneuvers. They can either vote for the hand-picked Democratic candidate, or vote Republican . . . in a district that has been gerrymandered (with the help of their beloved Congressman Lipinski) to elect only Democrats.

Elections in the old Soviet Union were a lot like this.

Here's how it works. Bill Lipinski, the 22-year career congressman, faces no competition. That's par for the course with incumbents in Congress, 98 percent of whom are re-elected cycle after cycle. Lipinski was unopposed in both the primary and general election in 2002. In 2000, his challenger raised less than $20,000 and Lipinski won with 76 percent of the vote.

At least a year ago, Lipinski decides that he wants to retire. However, he does not announce that this will be his last term, which would truly open up the seat and allow the election process to take place in a manner available to all candidates and voters. He keeps his intentions to himself, and to his favored replacement.

Lipinski also does not resign his seat and trigger a special election, even though in so doing he would still be able to time his departure to allow his favored replacement a head start in organizing a campaign. Instead, Lipinski runs unopposed, yet again, for the Democratic nomination in this rock-solid Democratic district.

Then, a mere two months before this November's general election, Congressman Bill Lipinski suddenly withdraws and orchestrates the awarding of the Democratic Party's nomination for Congress, like a crown on a royal pillow, to . . . guess who?

This coronation is for Bill Lipinski's son, Daniel.

Perhaps Daniel Lipinski would make a fine congressman. But even if he would, shouldn't he represent Knoxville, Tennessee, where he has lived for the last 15 years? But no, that's not how the divine right of hereditary succession works in modern times. And besides, Pop has no power of incumbency in Tennessee. (You know, like the Wicked Witch of the West in the Wizard of Oz had no power in the East. If only voters could click their heels together and say three times, "There's nothing like term limits.")

Now, after 22 years of his father, third district citizens have 38-year-old Daniel Lipinski to look forward to term after term for how many more decades? This is "representative government"? These are "free elections"?

"It was an open process," says the incumbent father. "Anyone who wanted to present his credentials could have presented his credentials here. Obviously, no one felt they were a better candidate than Dan."

Or perhaps no one else could afford the airfare from Knoxville?

Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan argued the deck had not been stacked in Daniel's favor. (Where would anyone get that idea?) He explained, "It's been publicized for about a week. So I would say that there was adequate notice to anyone who wanted to appear before the committee today."

After winning the 16 insider votes to gain the Democratic nomination and, with it, the keys to the congressional seat for as long as he can stay out of prison, Daniel Lipinski told reporters, "My heart has always been here. I've always wanted to come back. This is my home. I'm not a carpetbagger."

Yes, Sir Daniel has always wanted to come back home for a job that demands he immediately leave that home to live somewhere else. And make $150,000-smackers a year, plus perks, representing people he doesn't know. This isn't some freak event, either, as readers of my free Common Sense e-letter know: Congressional elections are usually a sham, with limited choices for voters.

So who needs elections? Voters do. But voters also need term limits to prevent incumbent politicians from accumulating so much power. Given the chance, politicians will side-step the voters completely. Lacking term limits, politicians now possess the means to carry on the business of government as if it were their own business, and not the people's.


Paul Jacob

Paul Jacob is President of Citizens in Charge Foundation and Citizens in Charge. His daily Common Sense commentary appears on the Web and via e-mail.