Want transparency? Get rid of 'shell' bills

A headline making the rounds a few months ago focused on the thousands of bills left to die in the House Rules Committee every year in Springfield and invoked the name of Mike Madigan, Illinois' version of Nancy Pelosi.

It's true as far as it goes, but it turns out many of those bills were born to die. In fact, 911 of the 5,077 bills that failed to get out of committee in the Illinois House last year were introduced by Speaker Madigan, as our Jake Griffin pointed out.

They were shell bills. As placeholders that wait in limbo until something substantive is amended onto them, shell bills exist to get around rules that establish a deliberative and transparent process for making new laws. They're not just used for minor or parochial matters. Shell bills are the vehicles that have allowed quick passage of income tax hikes and state budgets, sometimes within a single day.

That flies in the face of good government and the Illinois Constitution, which requires "a bill shall be read by title on three different days in each house."

The process is designed to invite airing of various viewpoints and to ensure interested parties see a proposal before it gets a final vote. It's often said the wheels of government turn slowly, and in this case that's how it should be. Passing a bill in a few days or even weeks, in a manner that allows for democratic debate, seems fast enough to us in all but dire emergencies.

Shell bills get around all that by going most of the way through the process with content that is sparse and laughably minute, like a series of bills introduced by Madigan Dec. 10 that appropriate $2 from the General Revenue Fund to each of several state agencies.

Later, lawmakers can amend the bill to make it something new and big and get it passed in a matter of hours, in some cases. It's obviously unethical, and not made any more palatable by the fact Illinois is not alone in this particular charade.

Fixes are easy, but largely are in the hands of those running the show.

Legislative leaders could set rules that require a one-day notification before a newly amended bill could be called for a vote. They could limit the number of bills each lawmaker can introduce, creating an incentive to use the allotment for substantive issues. They could rule out the use of shell bills altogether.

They could and they should. The legislative process desperately needs to show more transparency and inspire more trust. Getting rid of shell bills is one step to take toward those goals.

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