Illinois House in limbo until speaker is elected

Illinois House in limbo until speaker is elected

With Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan reportedly short of the 60 votes needed to hold on to the speakership, Illinois House members will have to line up behind a new candidate before they can get down to business.

With 19 Democrats in the Illinois House of Representatives saying publicly they will not vote to re-elect state Rep. Michael Madigan as speaker, and even more voting against him in internal straw polls, the longest-serving House speaker in U.S. history faces a day of reckoning Jan. 13.

Madigan suspended his campaign for speaker Jan. 11, but no other candidate has yet emerged who can claim the 60 votes required to gain the speaker’s gavel – the first order of business after the 102nd Illinois General Assembly is sworn in Jan. 13. If a new speaker is not elected, it could be the only order of business for a time.

If no single candidate receives 60 votes in the first round of voting Jan. 13, that could translate to days or weeks before the House can get down to business.

The last time the speaker’s gavel was in such contention was 1975, when it took two weeks and 93 votes to arrive at a winner. If no clear contender emerges in time for the speaker election on Jan. 13, the same gridlock could be in store for Illinois this year.

The Illinois House Rules provide: “No legislative measure may be considered and no committees may be appointed or meet before the election of the Speaker.” The Rules further require that: “No legislative measures, other than for the nomination and election of a successor Speaker, may be considered by the House during a vacancy in the Office of Speaker.”

Given that Democrats will have a majority with 73 of 118 seats in the House of Representatives to be sworn in Jan. 13, they hold the key to nominating and electing a speaker. But the party has yet to announce any candidate with the support of at least 60 Democrats.

The name of state Rep. Emanuel “Chris” Welch from Hillside, was put forward Jan. 11 with the support of all 22 members of the Black Caucus. His bid is tainted by #MeToo allegations, according to the Chicago Tribune.

Prior to that, the only challengers to step up were: state Reps. Ann Williams, D-Chicago, who in an internal caucus vote held Jan. 10 received 18 votes, and Stephanie Kifowit, D-Aurora, who received three. State Rep. Kelly Cassidy, D-Chicago, voted present on Jan. 10, and before suspending his campaign, Madigan received the plurality of support with 51 votes.

When Madigan suspended his campaign for speaker Jan. 11, he made it clear he was not removing himself from consideration. He may wait on the sidelines, let Democrats flounder trying to pick a new speaker and then emerge to coalesce his party and resume his reign.

Despite being arguably the most powerful politician in Illinois for decades, the cloud of corruption that hangs over Madigan – involving most recently a criminal investigation involving the speaker’s close confidant and other associates – created the first real challenge to his leadership in 36 years. The  federal indictments alleging schemes to bribe the House speaker proved a drag on the Illinois Democratic Party in the November 2020 elections, with several Democrats blaming Madigan for the party’s losses at the ballot box and demanding he resign as party chairman.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker saw the defeat of his signature policy proposal, the “fair tax” amendment, while Democratic Illinois Supreme Court Justice Thomas Kilbride became the first Illinois Supreme Court justice to lose a retention race after opponents tied him to Madigan, labeling him the speaker’s “favorite judge.” Meanwhile, Democrats lost a seat in the Illinois House where they had expected to make gains.  

Until the House sorts out its leadership, needed reforms will be put on hold – no COVID response, no ethics reform, not even new House Rules can be taken up. The House will simply continue taking votes for speaker until a candidate is able to cross the 60-vote threshold.

When a speaker is elected, state representatives need to tend to the House Rules that allowed Madigan to gather so much power. Unless they change the rules, the same concentration of power that allowed Madigan to dictate what became law and even who could vote will again reside with a speaker. The rules should:

  • Require bills to be read in their final and unchanged form on three different days, only allowing a supermajority vote to suspend this requirement.
  • Allow a simple majority vote of House members to discharge a bill from the Rules Committee to give it a fair hearing in a substantive committee or on the House floor.
  • Require majority approval of committee chair appointments.
  • Prohibit temporary committee member replacements unless the members have an excused absence or a conflict with another committee meeting.
  • Maintain a set order of business and give lawmakers advance notice of the agenda. The House should not be able to deviate from that agenda without the approval of a majority of the chamber.

State lawmakers can further push the reforms by taking the redistricting process out of the hands of lawmakers, by strengthening ethics rules to mandate transparency and hold lawmakers accountable for their conflicts of interest, and by freeing the legislative inspector general to investigate and publicize wrongdoing without hindrance from lawmakers.

A new House speaker should lead the reforms, otherwise toppling Madigan will become simply symbolic.

Want more? Get stories like this delivered straight to your inbox.

Thank you, we'll keep you informed!