Illinois House passes rules giving Madigan extraordinary power – again

Illinois House passes rules giving Madigan extraordinary power – again

On Jan. 29 the Illinois House of Representatives voted on new House Rules, but none of the new rules addressed the unparalleled power the Speaker of the House is given over the legislative process.

On Jan. 29 the Illinois House of Representatives voted on the new House Rules, which for the next two years will govern the House legislative procedures during the 101st General Assembly. Every state establishes rules for the process of legislating, but Illinois’ House Rules are notorious for handing Speaker of the House Mike Madigan more power than virtually any other presiding officer in any other state legislative chamber.

There are several changes to this term’s House Rules, but none of those changes have addressed the outsized power that the speaker since 1983 has amassed in Springfield.

Madigan has the power to dole out committee chair positions with $10,000 stipends. He controls who votes in committee, which bills will be called for a vote and when, whether a bill will even have a vote at all, or if it will be stuck in the House Rules Committee where, historically, bills have gone to die.

Here is how the landscape looks with the new rules just approved by the House:

Madigan still has the power to appoint – and remove – committee chairs, and thereby bestow or take away the $10,000 stipends that accompany the positions.

Under the House rules, the Illinois House speaker has sole discretion to give and take away chair positions – and the $10,000 annual stipends that accompany them – for the legislative committees that preside over issues ranging from agriculture to veterans affairs.

The possibility of losing a leadership appointment and stipend increases the temptation for lawmakers to side with their leadership rather than the constituents they represent. Party discipline rarely wavers.And while most states do allow the speaker to appoint committee chairs, most of those positions do not come with the same generous stipends.

In fact, as of 2017, more than two-thirds of the committee chairs in the nation’s 99 state legislative chambers receive no compensation for their committee leadership positions. Eliminating those stipends in Illinois would have been a step toward real reform.

The newly sworn-in House will have fewer committees and stipend-earning chairpersons than the previous House.

One positive development coming to the 101st General Assembly is a modest reduction of legislative committees in the House. In the past, many committee positions have not required much work to justify the stipends that accompanied them. Many committees had fewer than five meetings and some committees did not meet at all. This term, the House Rules eliminate 15 standing committees while creating just five new ones, for a net reduction of 10 standing committees — as well as the chairpersonships and stipends that go with them. That, at least, is a win for taxpayers.

Madigan can still substitute members of legislative committees, thereby getting the votes he wants while protecting committee members from taking votes that are unpopular in their districts.

In Illinois, the speaker can appoint temporary replacements for any committee member who is ill or “otherwise unavailable.” This means that if a lawmaker does not want to be on the record for taking an unpopular vote, Madigan can swap out that member for one in a safe seat who will not face an election opponent or a drop in constituent approval for a vote.

These substitutions are common: In 2016 there were over 600 committee substitutions, and the new House Rules do nothing to reform this practice. Illinois should follow the full third of legislative chambers that do not allow committee replacements. Members of committees should be held accountable for their committee votes. If members cannot show up to a committee meeting, they should not get a vote.

Madigan retains the sole power to dictate when a bill will be called for a vote.

There is no strict schedule for when bills will be called for a vote in the Illinois House, which means Madigan can call bills when he wants. Rank-and-file lawmakers are left with no idea when any particular bill will be heard, if at all. That limits their ability to prepare for and research a bill, and in turn, their ability to represent their constituents.

This kind of power, explicitly backed by the House Rules, is rare. As of 2017, Illinois was one of only three states to grant the presiding officer the ability to skip from bill to bill without prior notice and without the opportunity for objection from the rest of the body. A 2017 Illinois Policy Institute study confirmed that at least 55 other state legislative chambers call bills in a predetermined order, allowing lawmakers to prepare before the debate and vote. Illinois should do the same.

The new House Rules do nothing to reform this practice, and lawmakers will be left guessing which bill will receive a vote, and when.

Madigan can still kill bills before they have a chance to be heard, as the Rules Committee determines whether a bill will be vetted or sit in committee until it dies.

Madigan, unlike his counterparts in most other states, has the power to kill bills, even those that have popular support and deserve true floor debate, by virtue of his power to appoint the majority of the Rules Committee members.

That committee determines whether a bill will be sent to a substantive committee for deliberation or simply sit in the Rules Committee until it dies. As of 2017, Illinois was one of only nine states to require bills to go to a Rules Committee before being vetted in a substantive committee. When a lawmaker introduces a bill in the House, it automatically goes to the House Rules Committee, which is expected to sort bills and send them to the appropriate committees. But, in reality, the committee can sit on bills that the speaker opposes by never acting on them. The bills effectively die through inaction.

In order to get a bill out of the Rules Committee without that committee’s approval, three-fifths of both the minority and majority caucuses must sign a petition – and each member of those three-fifths must also become a sponsor of the bill. The other way to get a bill out of the Rules Committee, a “motion to discharge,” requires unanimous consent of the House, a punishingly high hurdle. In contrast, it simply takes approval of the majority of members to get a bill out of a substantive committee.

Perhaps ironically, this rule in its basic form was first implemented in the short period when Republicans controlled the Illinois House. When Madigan found his way back into the speaker’s chair in 1997, he was greeted with added power, courtesy of his Republican rivals.

A proposal Jan. 25 by House Rep. Mark Batinick, R-Plainfield, would have required that a bill stuck in Rules Committee be discharged on a supermajority vote. That would have been a modest but meaningful step toward balancing the Rules Committee’s power, but the new House Rules do not even go that far.

Each of these rules adds to the speaker’s power in the House, but taken together, they give him power over it. And once again, the new rules are little different than the old ones. If Illinoisans are to benefit from a well-functioning legislative process, they will need to convince their representatives that the House Rules stand in the way of transparency and fairness.

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