Editorial: Without strong ethics watchdog, value of changing House speaker is limited

  • House Speaker Michael Madigan stands on the floor of the Bank of Springfield Center on Friday.

    House Speaker Michael Madigan stands on the floor of the Bank of Springfield Center on Friday. Capitol News Illinois Photo / Jerry Nowicki

The Daily Herald Editorial Board
Updated 1/11/2021 8:34 PM

Second in an Opinion series.

A small and complicated crack appeared Monday in the armor of Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan when Madigan withdrew his name from contention and essentially dared the House to find someone to replace him.


That gambit in the speaker's effort to retain power may take some time to play out, but, as we emphasized Sunday, even if it marks an end to Madigan's long tenure as the most powerful person in Illinois politics, the systemic features that enabled Madigan to accumulate his overwhelming influence will remain available to whomever slides into place behind him. Thus, in addition to his departure, the House and Senate also need to see substantial changes to their rules of operation if Illinois government is to find itself back on a path toward honorable ethics.

Among the changes that have been discussed and need further attention are reforms such as term limits for leadership, checks on the ability of a leader to act as both speaker and the head of a political party, closing the lobbying "revolving door" that allows lawmakers to leave the Capitol one day and return as lobbyists the next and more. Included in that "more" is an important flaw that has not received en the attention it needs -- the weakness built into the job description of the state's legislative inspector general.

The problem starts at the very core of the ethics process, if one can call it that, in Illinois. The state's Legislative Ethics Commission, which recommends the inspector general to be confirmed by the legislature, is a political arm from its outset. It is composed of eight members, all lawmakers, two each appointed by the majority and minority leadership positions in each chamber. So, the image of eight political foxes guarding the General Assembly's ethics henhouse is baked into the very foundation of the legislative watchdog process.

And, it goes much further. The legislative inspector general must have the ethics commission's permission before opening an investigation or issuing subpoenas and cannot release a report without the commission's approval. This means that, for purely political reasons -- or no reason at all -- the political commission can stymie an ethics probe before it starts or at any time up to its very conclusion, as happens, according to testimony last year from former Inspector General Julie Porter.

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So, Illinois may get a new House speaker, and cosmetic changes may flow simply from the nature of a different person's style of management. But the state will have no serious mechanism for identifying and eliminating internal corruption unless its top ethics investigator reports to an agency that includes members independent of politics and has the authority and tools to investigate potential wrongdoing and independently report the findings.

Not every case will result in the kinds of criminal charges that have embroiled ComEd in the past year, but the corruption at the core of such cases, as the ComEd scandal is a prime example, can play out in myriad ways that promote cronyism, impede fair government and corrupt the system. Any serious contender for Madigan's position must commit to reforms that address these wrongs, and all the representatives seeking Madigan's ouster must demand them as central to creating the kind of government Illinois deserves.

Anything less and we just change one power figure for another.

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