On a single day in 2011, Illinois lawmakers introduced and passed the largest
tax hike in modern state history in a matter of hours.
And on May 25, 2016, House Democrats introduced and passed a 500-page bill in an
Something is wrong with Illinois democracy. Beyond the budget battle, the Land
of Lincoln has failed to create enough decent jobs, failed to provide quality
care to the stateís most vulnerable residents, and has shackled its children to
debt they can never pay.
Contrary to what many people may think, this is not a bug within Illinoisí
legislative process. Rather, it is a feature of House Speaker Mike Madiganís
iron grip over it.
In his role as House speaker, a position he has held for 31 of the past 33
years, Madigan has used many of the General Assemblyís administrative rules to
eliminate meaningful debate and maximize his power. His ousting of effective,
open democracy has harmed Illinoisans of all political stripes.
The House Rules Committee is Madiganís golden goose.
When a state representative introduces a bill, it goes to the House Rules
Committee. The Rules Committee is then supposed to assign the bill to a relevant
committee for further discussion.
If only it were so simple.
Instead, Madigan hoards bills in the Rules Committee, which is chaired by his
longtime second-in-command, state Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie, D-Chicago. Nothing
moves until Madigan gets what he wants. Any bill challenging the speakerís
power, no matter how popular, is as good as dead.
In the current General Assembly alone, reforms on term limits, redistricting and
constitutionally protected pension benefits have all been killed in the Rules
Committee. Two amendments limiting the number of years a lawmaker can serve as
speaker met their end in the Rules Committee, too.
Broad property-tax reform is another popular victim. Thatís unsurprising, given
that Madigan makes a fortune helping Chicago business owners lower their
Itís almost comical, until you realize the perversion of democracy at hand.
Illinois is an extreme outlier when it comes to rank-and-file lawmakersí ability
to get a bill out of committee. According to a 2004 study from the Brennan
Center for Justice at New York University Law School, Illinois is home to two of
only six state legislative chambers in the country where motions to discharge a
bill from committee are subject to approval from leadership.
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Illinoisans may elect who goes to the House of Representatives,
but they donít choose their representation Ė at least not in any
meaningful sense. The power belongs to Madigan. And he represents
If Madigan chooses to release a bill from the Rules Committee, it
ends up in one of more than 50 committees, each chaired by a
lawmaker Madigan picks for the job. Those positions come with
stipends worth thousands of dollars each.
Oftentimes, those positions donít even require much work. More than
half of Illinoisí House committees have acted on fewer than five
bills in 2016. Ten committees havenít held a single meeting.
Some states, such as Nebraska and South Carolina, have their
committee chairmen elected by their peers in the Statehouse. Others
have far fewer committees that meet more frequently.
Assigning committee chairs comes with a great deal of leverage. And
thereís more where that came from.
If a lawmaker is lucky enough to see her bill move out of Rules
Committee, monitoring its progress can come with endless
Madigan can call votes on a wide range of bills at a momentís
notice. Add in his use of hundreds of ďshell billsĒ (bills that make
meaningless changes but are ripe for last-second amendments) and it
becomes extremely difficult for reform-minded lawmakers to
effectively fight for their causes.
It is with these tools that Madigan pulled off the 2011 income-tax
hike, which took $31 billion from Illinois taxpayers with no reforms
to show for it.
Every once in a while, a mouse will get out of Madiganís maze. But
that lawmaker risks the speakerís revenge at every turn of the
legislative process, not to mention in upcoming elections, where
Madigan wields millions of dollars as chairman of the Democratic
Party of Illinois.
It takes a rare ego for someone to believe himself capable of
running a state on his own. But such is Madiganís, and he wonít
change course of his own accord. The fact the state of the state
hasnít forced the speaker to change is clear evidence of this.
Rank-and-file lawmakers must summon the courage to reform the
system. It is inefficient and undemocratic.
No one man should have all that power.
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