The holidays are a time to reflect, give thanks and prepare for the unbounded,
nameless future ahead.
For Illinois politicians, that should look something like this:
- Reflect on the perverse power dynamics of the Statehouse.
- Give thanks for your hardworking constituents.
- Steel yourself for a future without the Grinch of Springfield: House
Speaker Mike Madigan.
Members of the House will vote for speaker on Jan. 11. If Democrats choose
Madigan for the 17th time, he will be crowned the longest-serving House speaker
in U.S. history.
This longevity has not yielded a jolly, old elf.
Rather, it has left Illinoisans with a legislative body controlled by the will
of a single man. Forthcoming research from the Illinois Policy Institute reveals
Madigan has more in common with a Latin American caudillo, a despotic strongman,
than he does with any legislative leader in this country.
Like the green creature looking down upon Whoville, Madigan plays by his own
rules. And those rules serve to pummel those below him. No other state in the
country grants so much power to one legislative leader.
There are four pillars of Madiganís cartoonish power in the House, all dictated
by the legislative rules. A new speaker could decide to change these rules and
bring power back to the other 117 state representatives.
For this reason alone, rumors of a Democrat challenger to Madigan for the
speakership are tidings of comfort and joy.
First, Madigan controls what bills make it to a vote.
The speaker controls the Rules Committee, which is supposed to serve as a
traffic cop, directing each bill to the appropriate committee for a proper
hearing. It instead serves as a straightjacket for reforms Madigan loathes. This
is why Illinoisans donít hear about their lawmaker taking a substantive vote on
term limits, a property tax freeze or mapmaking reform.
More than 40 states donít require bills to pass through a rules committee at
all. Not here. In Illinois, the only way to get a bill out of Madiganís Rules
Committee without his consent is to have a supermajority of House members become
sponsors of the bill. This is virtually impossible.
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Second, Madigan appoints all 49 committee chairs and the $10,000
stipends that come with them.
This tucks dozens of representatives neatly into Madiganís pocket,
oftentimes for little work. Nine of those committees had fewer than
five meetings in 2015. Two didnít meet at all: Intermodal
Infrastructure and International Trade and Commerce. Vote against
Madiganís wishes on an important piece of legislation Ė or the
speakership Ė and he strips the chairmanship with a flick of his
Illinois is one of only nine states that pay bonuses to the
chairs of every standing legislative committee.
Third, Madigan controls who votes in those committees. In addition
to the leadership bonus, committee chairs donít even have to take
tough votes that could haunt them in their districts.
Madigan simply swaps out committee members at will, often replacing
them with a Democrat holding a safe seat who votes Madiganís way.
Only 29 of the 99 legislative chambers in the U.S. explicitly allow
this practice. The Illinois House is one of them. Legislative
committees there made more than 600 substitutions in 2016.
Fourth, Madigan controls when a bill is called for a vote.
There is no strict calendar showing when bills will be called for a
vote in Illinois. Only Madigan knows. Catching lawmakers flat-footed
with a complex piece of legislation is commonplace, and the
resulting lack of substantive debate suits Madigan just fine.
Knowledge is power.
Thereís a lot at stake in the upcoming vote for speaker. But House
Democrats arenít being honest about their options.
Most frame the vote as Madigan against a Republican. But what if a
brave Democrat emerged to challenge the speaker? One who could, at
the very least, change the legislative rules to allow for healthy
decision-making in the House?
If the House Republicans decide to reach across the aisle and vote
for a Democrat speaker replacement, all it would take is nine brave
Democrats to end Madiganís tenure as speaker.
As things stand, deliberative democracy is dead in Illinois. Madigan
killed it. But a Christmas miracle on Jan. 11 could bring it back to
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