With Madigan out, now is the time to reform the House Rules

With Madigan out, now is the time to reform the House Rules

The House Rules allowed Madigan to accumulate unprecedented power in the Illinois speaker’s office and helped enable a culture of corruption in Springfield. With Madigan out, reformers have a shot at changing the House Rules.

After more than three decades as speaker of the Illinois House of Representatives, Michael Madigan’s own caucus voted him out of the office following a series of corruption indictments alleging a scheme to bribe the long-time Democratic leader. Madigan turned the office of speaker into one of the most powerful in the state, leaving behind a legacy of corruption.

But now that Madigan is out, lawmakers have an opportunity to roll back some of that power and return it to themselves and ultimately, the people of Illinois. One of the first items the House will take up and one of the things that most needs immediate reform is Illinois’ House Rules.

These procedural rules helped direct unprecedented power to the Illinois House speaker. They allowed Madigan to kill bills before they had a chance to be heard, to call bills for a vote without the entire chamber knowing what was coming, and to reward loyalty with committee chair positions and their accompanying stipends of over $10,000 – or punish dissent by withholding the same. But Madigan’s ouster signals an appetite for change.

The newly elected speaker, state Rep. Emanuel “Chris” Welch, D-Hillside, has indicated a willingness to rethink the chamber rules, a move apparently supported by members of the Democratic Caucus. Much focus has been directed to changes allowing the House to meet remotely in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. There is in fact a need for the legislature to do business during the pandemic. In the longer term, however, the Illinois House Rules need changes focused on preventing the consolidation of power in the speaker, which has exacerbated the culture of corruption in Springfield.

The following changes to the House Rules would go a long way toward returning power to the rest of the Illinois House.

1. Allow a majority vote to discharge a bill from the House Rules Committee.

The speaker appoints the majority of the House Rules Committee, which can make sure bills never see a vote. Every bill filed in the House must go through the House Rules Committee, which is then supposed to direct those bills to the appropriate substantive committees so they can have a hearing.

But the Rules Committee can prevent a bill from moving forward by merely not acting on it. To get a bill out of Rules, the chief sponsor of a bill must file a motion signed by three-fifths of Republicans and three-fifths of Democrats in the House, all of whom must also be sponsors of the bill. Otherwise, discharging a bill from Rules requires unanimous consent of the House. This means that if the speaker does not like a bill, the Rules Committee can prevent it from moving by simply not acting on it. That includes legislation popular with the public such as lobbying reform.

A recent resolution proposing changes to the House Rules would require the Rules Committee to refer all bills to a standing or special committee during odd-numbered years, and all appropriation bills during even numbered-years. That is certainly an improvement on the status quo. But any time a piece of legislation has enough support that a majority are willing to see it moved out of the Rules Committee, a handpicked minority should not be allowed to keep it from getting a fair hearing. A majority vote should discharge a bill from the Rules Committee and send it to the appropriate substantive committee.

2. Require majority approval of chair and minority spokesperson positions.

Under the House Rules, the speaker appoints each committee chairperson, positions that come with a generous stipend of over $10,000. The speaker can grant and withhold these positions to reward loyalty and punish opposition. For example, former Rep. Scott Drury was denied a committee chairmanship after he did not vote to re-elect Madigan as speaker in 2017.

Committee chair positions should not be used as the speaker’s carrot and stick to influence lawmakers. Committee chair appointments should be approved by a majority vote of the House. House members should eliminate the seniority requirement that members be in their third term to serve as a committee chair.

3. End unnecessary temporary committee substitutes.

The speaker can temporarily replace committee members if they are “otherwise unavailable.” This can be done to protect members from votes that would be controversial in their districts or to get more favorable results. For example, WBEZ reported that in 2014, the speaker substituted certain Democratic representatives on the House Environment Committee to achieve a unanimous vote in favor of a measure Exelon wanted to pass.

Members should not be switched in and out of committees for political reasons. Temporary replacement should be prohibited unless the member has a conflict with another committee meeting or has an excused absence from session. 

4. Operate the House on a set schedule that members can count on.

The rules allow the speaker to change any order of business at any time; there is no requirement for a schedule to be set in advance. This means that hundreds of bills can be on the calendar, and only the speaker knows for sure which ones will get a vote that day.

Lawmakers should have an idea of the votes coming up so they can debate and act on the legislation intelligently. The rules should require a schedule set in advance that can only be changed with the approval of a majority of the House.

5. End last-minute “gut and replace” bills.

The Illinois Constitution requires that all bills be read by title on three separate days before they can be passed, but lawmakers use shell bills to get around this requirement. These bills are designed to be amended later, usually by removing a word in the Illinois code and replacing it with the same word. Once a shell bill is read on two separate days, it can be amended to include substantive changes. Lawmakers will insert whole pieces of unrelated legislation into shell bills after they had already been read into the record three times, technically meeting constitutional requirements.

For example, the fiscal year 2020 budget – almost 1,600 pages – was an amendment to a one-sentence billthat read: “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.” The entire budget was passed without giving lawmakers a chance to know what was in it ahead of time.

The House Rules need to be changed so all bills must be read by title on three separate days in their final form. Lawmakers need time to understand what they are voting on – as the spirit of the constitution intended.

6. Set term limits for House speaker.

Before losing the speaker vote in January 2021, Madigan was the longest-serving legislative leader in modern U.S. history, and this tenure allowed him to accumulate enough power to make it nearly impossible to accomplish anything without his support. In contrast to the House, the Illinois Senate Rules limit to 10 years the time the Senate president and minority leader can serve. If Madigan had been forced to step down in 1993 after 10 years, it seems unlikely that so much power and influence would be concentrated in the office of Illinois speaker of the House.

Like the Senate, the Illinois House Rules should limit the term of the speaker to no more than five General Assemblies, so the state does not have to see generations pass without a change in leadership. There is cause for optimism on this front: term limits for legislative leaders is one reform that made it into the recently proposed House Rules resolution. It’s an important step, but all of the above reforms should be considered to truly ensure that the legislative process is fair.

If House members commit to new House Rules with their new speaker, Illinois may be able to emerge from the shadow Madigan cast over the Statehouse for so many years.

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