Editorial: After Madigan, the rules must change

  • The Illinois House of Representatives doesn't just need a new speaker.  It also needs new rules.

    The Illinois House of Representatives doesn't just need a new speaker. It also needs new rules. Associated Press

Daily Herald Editorial Board
Posted12/3/2020 1:00 AM

A reading of the tea leaves does not show a bright future for Michael Madigan. The Illinois House speaker for 35 years faces a defection of Democrats as a scandal linked to him unfurls, ushering in a leadership battle that will start when the new legislature convenes in January.

Madigan must go, as we've said before.


But that's just a beginning. The Illinois House needs to overhaul the rules of doing business that allowed Madigan to consolidate his power and wield it to control legislation, raise up allies, sideline challengers and stymie the good-government goals of doing the right and responsible thing for the people of Illinois.

Any Democrat seeking to succeed him needs to commit to rules changes as well. A change in personality is not all that is required.

In spite of all the complaining about Madigan's iron fist over the years, the majority caucus has shown virtually no desire for changing procedures in the Illinois House. A renegade Democrat voting "no" on Madigan or his House rules is rare enough that it warrants a news story. Rep. Anne Stava-Murray of Naperville did so in 2019 and said she faced a barrage of warnings from colleagues that failing to go along invited retaliation from Madigan.

The fact that the speaker had the power to retaliate speaks volumes. So, now, potentially post-Madigan, it's time for Democrats in the Illinois House to show their colors.

Among needed changes:

Limit leaders' terms. It goes without saying that 35 years is decades too long to be speaker. State senators in 2017 set a 10-year limit on leadership. Members of the House did not. Can the representatives function without being led on a tight leash? We ought to find out.

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Deliberate on bills and vote on them. No more consigning bills to die in the Rules Committee. No more "shell" bills, introduced without substance to meet legislative deadlines, then used as vehicles for last-minute passage of laws as substantive as income tax hikes or the state budget. We have rules to get around rules -- all to avoid a deliberative and transparent legislative process.

Shake up committee perks. Some states have members choose legislative committee chairs. Some states assign the role to the most senior member from the majority party, reports the National Conference of State Legislatures. Leaving it up to the speaker to name committee chairs, whose stipends add to their legislative pay, is yet another way power accrues for the leader, not for the people of Illinois.

Restrict party power. Madigan's power over his caucus extends beyond his role as speaker. As the state party chairperson, he also controls the campaign funding that's critical to each representative's reelection. That dual role ought to be prohibited.

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