By Austin Berg / Illinois Policy Institute –
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 evening.
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 state’s 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 Illinois’ legislative process. Rather, it is a feature of House Speaker Mike Madigan’s 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 Assembly’s 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 Madigan’s 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 speaker’s 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. That’s unsurprising, given that Madigan makes a fortune helping Chicago business owners lower their property-tax bills.
It’s almost comical, until you realize the perversion of democracy at hand.
Illinois is an extreme outlier when it comes to rank-and-file lawmakers’ 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.
Illinoisans may elect who goes to the House of Representatives, but they don’t choose their representation – at least not in any meaningful sense. The power belongs to Madigan. And he represents himself.
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 don’t even require much work. More than half of Illinois’ House committees have acted on fewer than five bills in 2016. Ten committees haven’t 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 there’s 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 frustration.
Madigan can call votes on a wide range of bills at a moment’s notice. Add in his use of hundreds of “shell bills” (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 Madigan’s maze. But that lawmaker risks the speaker’s 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 Madigan’s, and he won’t change course of his own accord. The fact the state of the state hasn’t 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.
Austin graduated from Tufts University in 2014 with a bachelor’s degree in Economics and Political Science with a concentration in political theory. While at Tufts, Austin was the founder and editor-in-chief of PostScript, an independent political journal. His work has been featured in the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Sun-Times, the Daily Herald, the State Journal-Register and the Belleville News-Democrat.
Prior to joining the Institute, Austin worked in television content development for WGBH in Boston, risk and execution at PEAK6 Investments in Chicago.