Illinois House backslides toward Madigan-era rules

Illinois House backslides toward Madigan-era rules

The Illinois House has rolled back reforms made to its House Rules that govern how it conducts business in the wake of the Madigan Com-Ed scandal. New boss, same as the old boss?

Illinois House members two years ago were eager to separate themselves from the corruption of the Mike Madigan era, so they changed the rules so bills would get a fair hearing rather than being killed at the House speaker’s discretion.

March 10 was the Illinois House of Representatives’ deadline for bills to be heard in substantive committees to be vetted in public before being passed into law. But unlike in the previous General Assembly, many if not most of the bills filed in the House were not assigned to a substantive committee to get a hearing. That is because this session, the House rolled back the modest reform made to symbolically distance themselves from Madigan’s legacy of corruption.

Before the 102nd General Assembly, thousands of bills were left to languish in the House Rules committee with little recourse to move the process forward. Under Illinois House Rules, every bill is sent to the catch-all committee immediately after it is filed, to then be referred to the appropriate substantive committee. A bill on farming would be sent to the agricultural committee, a bill on electricity rates would be sent to the energy committee and so on.

But many bills would not be referred at all. And because the speaker of the House appoints the chair and a majority of the members of the Rules Committee, the bills that were referred were done so at the whim of the speaker. This meant popular bills, such as imposing term limits on legislators or establishing a process for independent redistricting, would never see a committee hearing. This practice allowed Madigan to control bills, as well as the lawmakers who wanted their bills heard.

That changed in the past General Assembly. When Madigan was forced out as speaker in the wake of federal corruption indictments, his successor promised to break away from the methods of his predecessors. One of the first actions Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch and House Democrats took to demonstrate their commitment to leave the Madigan era behind was to pass a reformed version of the House Rules that among other things required the Rules Committee to refer all bills filed in odd-numbered years to their respective substantive committees to be vetted. Speaker Welch called the rules a “historic first step” in “reforming the ways of the past, and injecting more transparency and accountability,” according to the Chicago Sun-Times.

In truth, this reform often meant bills simply died in substantive committees instead of the Rules Committee. But the change was not meaningless – a bill can be discharged from a substantive committee with the support of a simple majority of the House. Absent the new reform, getting a bill discharged from the Rules Committee requires the support of 60% of both caucuses, all of whom must be sponsors of the bill. Otherwise, discharge from the Rules Committee requires unanimous consent – in other words, a virtually impossible hurdle to pass.

Now the House has taken a step backward, repealing that reform and going back to the days when the Rules Committee only allowed a select number of favored bills to move forward in the process, in direct contradiction of Speaker Welch’s promise to continue to reform the rules and bring the chamber out from Madigan’s shadow.

The Illinois House was right to reject Madigan’s ways and give bills a chance to become law. It is disheartening it is backsliding into the old ways that Democratic lawmakers rightfully denounced just two years ago.


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