Commentary: Removing Madigan won't solve Illinois' problems

by Joe Tabor, Senior Policy Analyst
Illinois Policy

The feds are circling Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan in a bribery investigation involving utility giant ComEd. His allies are facing indictments. Members of his party are publicly demanding his ouster as party chair, and they have the votes to deny him another term as House speaker.

It’s tempting to think just overthrowing Madigan will clean up the mess.

But ousting Madigan won’t eliminate Illinois’ ethics problems or disperse power so the state again has representational government. Illinois leaders must throw out the corrupt system Madigan has built over decades.

Three years ago, Madigan celebrated his record as the longest-serving state House speaker in U.S. history. Today, it looks as if his grip on power is slipping. As of this writing, 19 state representatives have publicly opposed Madigan’s re-election this January. But these lawmakers won’t just be voting on Madigan: they’ll also vote to adopt the House Rules, which help determine how much control the speaker has over the legislative process. These rules, coupled with the lack of safeguards against this steady accumulation of power, have led Madigan to where he is today. Without change, a shrewd politician could simply pick up where Madigan left off.

The House Rules establish how business gets done in the legislature. These rules let the speaker decide which bills get a fair hearing and which quietly die. They allow the speaker to select which politicians receive generous stipends as committee chairs. They allow politicians to gut and replace bills to rush through legislation – such as all 1,581 pages of the $40.6 billion fiscal year 2020 budget, originally a single-sentence bill appropriating just $2.

And, contrary to the Illinois Senate, which sets term limits of the Senate president at 10 years, the House Rules do not limit the number of terms a speaker can hold. Terms as speaker should be limited to prevent another Madigan.

This January, state representatives should reject the current House Rules. They can and should be amended.

But change can’t end there. Illinois needs to reform the way it draws political maps. Every 10 years, Illinois is required to redraw voting districts to adjust for shifts in population. But redistricting in Illinois has been used to keep incumbents in power. Earlier this month, 63 candidates ran unopposed for legislative office, including a whopping 52 of the 118 seats in the Illinois House of Representatives. This result is entirely predictable: Illinois legislators are responsible for voting on the map, so of course they will do what they can to benefit themselves. And Madigan’s bid for a new term has centered on his argument that he has the power to deliver another map that keeps his people from facing opponents.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Illinois could join the 17 other states that put independent commissions or other bodies in charge of redistricting – not lawmakers. Voters should choose their elected officials, not the other way around.

There needs to be more transparency and accountability in Springfield. Sitting lawmakers should not be able to lobby local governments or state executive agencies, and they should have a “cooling off” period after leaving the General Assembly before they lobby their former peers, as is the case in most other states. Lawmakers need to provide more detailed financial disclosures and should have to recuse themselves from voting on legislation in which they have a conflict of interest. Finally, the legislative inspector general needs the authority to open investigations and publish findings of wrongdoing without obtaining permission from lawmakers on the Legislative Ethics Commission, who have a propensity to cover for their own.

Madigan may be down, but he’s not out. Whether he can win back enough votes to get a 19th term as speaker remains to be seen, but Illinoisans deserve ethics reform no matter what. Changing the House Rules, adopting fair maps and instituting ethics reforms would begin unraveling Madigan’s web of corruption.

Joe Tabor is a senior policy analyst at the Illinois Policy Institute, a nonpartisan research organization that promotes responsible government and free market principles.

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