Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan’s power over Illinois politics is more precarious than ever.

A steady stream of federal investigations, wiretaps and raids of people close to him, a deferred prosecution agreement with Commonwealth Edison wherein the utility giant admitted to bribing the speaker, and a grand jury subpoena served to Madigan’s office have led even some Democrats to call on the speaker to resign.

But even if he falls, some of the power structures Madigan has built could remain – specifically, the parliamentary rules which govern the Illinois House of Representatives.

Unless members of the House resolve to change the House Rules, the next speaker could exploit them to build a similar political empire. To prevent the amassing of this corruption-inducing power, those rules must be dismantled.

How the House Rules encouraged the ComEd bribery scheme

When utility company ComEd targeted Madigan for a bribery scheme, they clearly knew he was the man who would have the most power to advance their agenda in the General Assembly.

ComEd has now entered an agreement with federal prosecutors admitting to a scheme to bribe “Public Official A,” later referred to as the Illinois House speaker. ComEd agreed to pay a $200 million fine and to admit to seeking Madigan’s help with legislation worth more than $150 million to the company.

The kind of concentrated power held by the speaker naturally attracts groups seeking to advance their interests. ComEd’s deferred prosecution agreement makes veiled reference to this basic fact of life in Springfield. According to the agreement, “ComEd understood that, as Speaker of the House of Representatives, Public Official A was able to exercise control over what measures were called for a vote in the House of Representatives and had substantial influence and control over fellow lawmakers concerning legislation, including legislation that affected ComEd.”

By steadily accumulating and jealously guarding power over the legislative process, Mike Madigan has held onto his position as speaker of the Illinois House of Representatives for 35 of the last 37 years. Madigan first gained his position as speaker after drawing the legislative map to benefit the members of his caucus. He is the only speaker of any statehouse in the country to also serve as chairman of a state party – in Illinois, this allows Madigan to direct virtually unlimited money to legislative candidates, leaving many colleagues indebted to him for their seats.

But perhaps most insidiously, the Illinois House Rules – the parliamentary rules that govern the House legislative process – give Madigan more power than any other speaker in the country.

Any lobbyist who wants to pass a bill in Illinois must go through the hoops laid out by the House Rules.

Madigan can easily pass legislation by exploiting loopholes, such as gutting and replacing existing bill language or using shell bills to rapidly move legislation. Or he can single-handedly kill bills by having them held in the Rules Committee, where they will never see public debate or a vote. With that kind of power, it is unsurprising that entities such as ComEd would want to stay on the speaker’s good side by hiring his friends.

These powers, taken together, give the speaker control over the life and death of legislation in Springfield.

6 problems with Madigan’s House Rules, and how to fix them

Lawmakers should make the following reforms to the House Rules if Illinois is to replace its culture of corruption with transparency and accountability.

1) Stop killing bills in the Rules Committee

Every bill filed by a state representative is immediately sent to the House Rules Committee, which acts as the gatekeeper for the bills in the Illinois House.

The Rules Committee refers bills to substantive committees such as the Agriculture and Conservation or Veterans’ Affairs committees. These committees then vote to send bills to the House floor.

By appointing his closest allies to chair the House Rules Committee, the speaker can control which bills see the light of day.

Getting a bill out of the Rules Committee without approval is nearly impossible. It requires a motion supported by three-fifths of House Democrats and three-fifths of House Republicans, all of whom must be sponsors of the bill. Otherwise, discharge requires a unanimous vote of the House.

For example, a recent article from the Center for Illinois Politics details how the vast majority of ethics bills filed in 2019 never made it out of the House Rules Committee or the Senate equivalent. This includes commonsense bills with wide popular support. For example, 61% of Illinoisans support a ban on sitting lawmakers being employed to lobby local governments, according to a Paul Simon Public Policy Institute poll released in March 2020. Yet there are bills addressing this issue that have been stuck in Rules Committee for months.

It should not be this difficult for a bill to get a hearing, and in other states, it is not. For example, in the Idaho House of Representatives, any member can get a bill out of committee unless that motion is opposed by a majority of the members.

At the very least, it should only take 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.

2) Stop letting one person appoint committee chairs

Under the House Rules, the speaker appoints the majority of each committee’s members, including the chair. Each chair serves at the pleasure of the speaker, and receives a stipend of $10,574. These positions can be used as rewards for siding with the speaker or taken away for crossing him.

For example, in 2017, former Illinois state Rep. Scott Drury, D-Highland Park, was the only Democrat in the House who did not vote to elect Madigan as speaker. In the aftermath, he was the only third term representative who did not receive a committee chair appointment, according to the Chicago Tribune. Drury specifically cited the stipend as a reason one of his colleagues was afraid not to vote for Madigan for speaker.

Committee leaders should not be beholden to the speaker for their positions, and not every legislature allows the leadership to pick chairs of committees.

For example, in Nebraska, the unicameral legislature appoints committee chairs by secret ballot on the chamber floor. Similarly, House Legislative Committee Chairs in Illinois should be appointed by a majority vote of their caucus, and minority chairpersons should be appointed by a majority vote of their caucus.

3) Stop letting one man choose who votes in committee

The role of each legislative committee is to debate committee-specific bills and to vote on whether to send those bills to the respective chamber for consideration. In most states, committee members are on record – for or against a bill – each time they take a committee vote.

In Illinois, however, the speaker can appoint temporary replacements for any committee member who is “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 competition. Or, since all majority caucus committee members are appointed by the speaker, if a member opposes him on a particular bill in committee, he can substitute that member for another who agrees with him.

The speaker appears to have done just that on behalf of ComEd’s parent company, Exelon.

Michael McClain, a close confidant of Madigan’s and an Exelon and ComEd lobbyist, wanted to gain unanimous support for a resolution backed by Exelon warning against closing Illinois’ nuclear plants. Emails obtained by WBEZ show McClain identified at least six Democratic committee members for the speaker to substitute to obtain a unanimous vote in the House Environment Committee. That resolution passed out of committee 16-0, prompting McClain to write to a high-level member of Madigan’s staff: “I love you.”

Illinois should explicitly prohibit such temporary replacements. Committee members should be held accountable for their attendance and for their votes, and the speaker should not be able to handpick a committee for any given bill that is heard. If lawmakers are absent from a vote in committee, they should simply lose their vote.

4) Put an end to shell bills as a way to rush major legislation

The Illinois Constitution requires each bill be read on three separate days before it can be passed into law so that lawmakers can know what they are voting for. But Madigan can get around this provision with shell bills and “gut-and-replace” bills.

“Shell bills” are bills specifically designed to be amended later, usually making no substantive change in the law but rather removing a word in the code and replacing it with the same word. “Gut-and-replace” bills are bills that have hit a dead end somewhere in the legislative process.

Lawmakers will insert whole pieces of unrelated legislation into these dead-end bills and shell bills after they had already been read into the record three times, technically meeting constitutional requirements.

For example, Illinois’ entire fiscal year 2020 budget was originally introduced as a shell bill that read as follows: “The amount of $2, or so much of that amount as may be necessary, is appropriated from the General Revenue Fund to the Governor’s Office of Management and Budget for its FY 20 ordinary and contingent expenses.”

Lawmakers passed the bill in the Senate and went through two readings in the House before gutting and replacing it with all 1,581 pages of the budget.

Cramming unread legislation through the process completely flouts the spirit of the Illinois Constitution. House Rules should require bills to be read on three different days following its most recent amendment. In other words, the legislation should be read in its final and unchanged form on three different days, only allowing a supermajority vote to suspend this requirement.

5) Stop letting one man decide when to call bills for a vote

At the height of the legislative session, there could be 100 or more bills and resolutions on the speaker’s order of business – many more than can be voted on in one day.

For example, on May 15, 2015, there were 244 bills scheduled on the calendar. The General Assembly chose 16 bills to act on that day, and only Madigan knew for sure which bills those would be, and in what order they would be called.

This is because the rules allow the speaker to change “any order of business …  at any time.” Not only are there more bills than the House can vote on, but Madigan could call those bills in any order he wanted, regardless of the calendar. Rank-and-file lawmakers are left with no idea whether or when a bill will be called.

Not every state allows this sort of uncertainty. For example, the Ohio Legislature and Virginia General Assembly do not allow a bill to be taken up out of order without the approval of a majority of the members. In order to represent their constituents effectively, lawmakers need to be able to know which bills will have a vote and when. The House should have a set order of business, and lawmakers should have 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.

6) Put term limits on the House leadership

Mike Madigan is the longest-serving state House speaker in the history of the country. His long tenure is part of the reason he has been able to accumulate the powers he has and build the infrastructure in the House to make it nearly impossible to do anything in Springfield without his say-so.

Were Madigan president of the Illinois Senate, his long rule would not have been possible. That is because the Illinois Senate Rules set a limit on the term of the Senate President and minority leadership.

To prevent another Madigan, the Illinois House should adopt a similar rule. No speaker should remain in that position indefinitely. Dismantling the House Rules that propped up Madigan’s extraordinary power will return the legislative process back to the majority of elected members, and by extension, the Illinois voters who sent them to Springfield.


Springfield has lived in Madigan’s shadow for decades, in large part because the House Rules have facilitated and amplified his power. To step out from his shadow, the House needs to reform those rules by:

  1. Not killing bills in the Rules Committee
  2. Not allowing one person to appoint committee chairs
  3. Not allowing one man to choose who votes in committee
  4. Stopping the use of shell bills to pass unread legislation
  5. Giving lawmakers a reliable schedule for voting on bills
  6. Placing term limits on House leadership

With these reforms, Illinois can rid itself of a speaker-dominated chamber and enjoy a better-functioning, more democratic legislative process.