Rules Committee: Where thousands of Illinois bills go to die
Hunters can wear bright pink. Children 2 or younger must be fastened into a rear-facing car seat. Nursing mothers are excused from serving jury duty.
These are just some of the more than 200 new laws that will take effect at the start of the new year. But what about the thousands more that seemingly never got a vote from legislators during the last two-year session?
Welcome to the Illinois House of Representatives' Rules Committee, where bills go to die.
But don't mourn these lost acts and shelved laws; most were never meant to see the light of day.
Many are shell bills, introduced as placeholders for potential future legislation and containing just a few words that can be changed later to something more substantive. They exist to circumvent rules requiring three readings of a bill before a vote and allow passage of deals like, say, a state budget within mere hours.
Take, for instance, House Bill No. 1, introduced Dec. 5, 2016, by state Rep. Lou Lang of Chicago.
It literally seeks to strike the word "and" from the introduction of the Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities Code, then add the word "and" in its place. The bill had its first reading a month later and was assigned to the Rules Committee, where it sat untouched for the remainder of session. Lang, one of five members of the Rules Committee, introduced another 129 shell bills that will die in committee, unused.
Powerful House Speaker Michael Madigan is chief sponsor of 911 of the 5,077 House bills that will die from this past session. Most of them are shell bills.
So are most of the 670 bills introduced by Republican Minority Leader Jim Durkin this session that are still in the Rules Committee.
Like the House Rules Committee, the Illinois Senate's Assignments Committee also acts as a warehouse for potential bills, legislative experts said.
In all, 5,999 bills were introduced by state representatives during the soon-to-expire 100th General Assembly. Another 3,649 bills were introduced by senators, according to the legislature's website. Most never get as far as a hearing.
"You've only got so much time in the session," said Kent Redfield, an Illinois legislative historian and professor emeritus of political science at the University of Illinois Springfield.
"If every bill had a hearing, there would be 12-hour days at the end of session trying to wade through stuff that wasn't going anywhere anyway."
Redfield said it's not uncommon for legislatures to use committees as a traffic cop, determining what goes forward. What is unusual is the volume of shell bills created by Illinois legislators, which allows for important legislation to be spirited through both chambers without lawmakers getting a chance to fully read or digest it.
"Illinois is the shadiest when it comes to that. To have that many shell bills, that's something you don't see in any other state," said Dave Shonerd, director of state operations for MultiState Associates, a Virginia-based government relations firm that researched bill introduction policies at all 50 state legislatures in 2015.
Fully formed bills also can wind up stalled in the Rules Committee. Some are pressing issues that don't get heard. Others are "introduced by legislators for the purpose of a press release," Redfield said. "The legislator can point to the bill and its fate and tell constituents they tried."
Illinois is one of more than 30 states that allow legislators to introduce an unlimited number of bills, MultiState reported.
Sixteen states limit the number of bills legislators can file during any session. Colorado is the most strict, limiting each lawmaker to five bills per session. Other states, like Nevada, allow just about anyone to file a bill.
Illinois had the highest number of bills introduced of all the state legislatures, behind Texas and New York, the MultiState report showed.
Steve Brown, a Madigan spokesman, said talk in the past about limiting the number of bills lawmakers can introduce has gone nowhere. In his view, current rules work fine.
"The system, in part, is based on the majority being in charge of the management of bills. It's about as fair as it can be," he said.
Adds Redfield: "Does it mean bills from the minority get short shrift or leadership can kill a bill that they don't want out? Certainly, but the alternative is every bill gets a full hearing and it's really chaos."
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