PI Original Adam Doster Tuesday July 27th, 2010, 2:48pm

Changing The Rules In Springfield

If progressives want to see a more open debate in Springfield and empower like-minded lawmakers, it's time to focus on the procedural rules of the Illinois House.

State Rep. Ron Stephens (R-Highland), like many of his Republican colleagues, is no fan of House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago). "Mike Madigan and his failed policies are what have taken this state to the brink of disaster," Stephens wailed from the House floor as lawmakers debated a pension borrowing bill on May 7. That sentiment is reflected in conservative-leaning editorial boards across the state virtually every week. The Speaker, they argue, carries disproportionate influence in the state capitol.

It's hyberbolic to imply, as many of these critics do, that Madigan is solely a force for evil in the Statehouse. But the Speaker's accumulated power certainly stifles some honest and open debate, a problem for a government facing a severe economic deficit and a crisis in public trust.

The Skill Of Madigan

How can Madigan control what issues rank-and-file members take up? He's a brilliant politician, for starters. There's a reason he's led his caucus for four decades and was reelected unanimously by his fellow committeemen earlier this spring to serve as chairman of the state Democratic Party, despite botching the Scott Lee Cohen vetting process and largely neglecting his statewide party-building duties. Campaign contributions also play a role. Madigan controls his party's warchest and can make unlimited contributions to Democrats he favors in tight races. That gives him plenty of leverage over members facing reelection or potential lawmakers making their first run for office.

Less attention, however, is paid to the procedural rules of his chamber. This is how he manages to control the legislative agenda of the House so tightly, pushing through or killing bills that benefit his majority and marginalize both Republicans and left-leaning voices in his own party. With the mid-term elections (and a subsequent battle over legislative redistricting) looming, we've witnessed this dynamic play out in Springfield this session. Democrats ushered through a slew of conservative bills -- pension cuts, an industry-friendly telecommunications rewrite, small business tax cuts, McCormick Place reforms -- that undercut the economic message of the GOP and their gubernatorial candidate, Sen. Bill Brady. We saw fewer progressive bills that would have (in any way) caused headaches for vulnerable caucus members, even if they would have addressed some of the state's major problems.

Now that the Democratic leadership has failed to pass a sustainable budget, it might be time for progressive lawmakers to consider reforming procedural rules statutes.

A Procedural History Lesson

Ironically, it was Republicans who strengthened the hand of the Speaker and Senate President in the mid-1990s. After drawing new (and favorable) legislative districts in the 1990 redistricting process, Republicans won a majority in the Senate in the 1992 elections. To marginalize Madigan, who still held a majority in the House, former GOP Senate President Pate Philip instituted a series of rule changes centralizing power in his office, effectively stripping rank-and-file members of various basic rights and giving Philip authority to shelve bills Democrats liked in the lower chamber. When the GOP and Rep. Lee Daniels took over the House two years later, they adopted the Senate rules almost verbatim.

But Republican reign was short-lived; Madigan won back his majority in 1996 and was pleased as punch to keep in place the rules Republicans themselves authored. At the beginning of every assembly since, he has convinced Democrats to reauthorize those identical rules almost unanimously.

Nobody is naive enough to suggest that the legislative leaders should have zero control over the legislative agenda. Someone has to decide what bills get called and which legislation is forwarded on to the proper committee. Giving every bill that's written, especially those that have no chance of passage but are instead introduced at the behest of a constituent or an interest group for political purposes, it would be a logistical nightmare if no one were in charge. "The time commitment," says Charlie Wheeler, director of the Public Affairs Reporting Program at the University of Illinois-Springfield, "would be incredible."

Yet the rules currently governing the Illinois General Assembly provide the Speaker with outsized control. For starters, the House Speaker dominates appointments of chairs to committees and the assignments of bills to committees. As a result, a controversial bill will often be thrown into a committee with no jurisdiction over the issue at hand but with a composition of members who see eye-to-eye with leadership on the specific measure. Many times, the Speaker will direct bills into the Rules Committee, which he controls with an iron fist. That's because legislative measures can only be discharged (and sent to the full House for a vote) with unanimous consent of the entire chamber, meaning one House member can block a measure without providing any rationale for doing so.

For the lucky bills that are placed into a relevant committee, the chairman can't call a hearing on any bill without the consent of the party leader. And if the Speaker agrees to a hearing and a bill is cleared in committee, all amendments proposed on the floor must flow through the Rules Committee as well, giving leadership enormous leeway to kill modified bills once the legislative process has begun. Bill sponsors don't even have the ability to control who picks up their bill in the other chamber. That gives leadership authority to assign "hostile sponsors" to certain Senate bills. These members attach their name to legislation before ignoring it entirely before the session ends.

The Value Of Reform

Cindi Canary of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform equates the procedural hurdles to "legislative purgatory." One Democratic member, speaking anonymously, called them "onerous." But when given the chance to alter the rules at the start of each new assembly (during January in odd-numbered years), rank-and-file members in the majority always balk. That's partly because of Madigan's political skill; while lawmakers vote separately to nominate a House Speaker and a new set of chamber rules, Madigan has effectively turned the two into a package deal. A vote against Madigan's rules could force that lawmaker into obscurity. ***

Lawmakers can't be left off the hook, either. Another member speaking anonymously admitted many rank-and-filers don't understand or aren't interested in procedural issues at all. At the same time, members are quick to exploit the choke points when they prove politically useful. Vulnerable members, for example, can avoid taking public stances on issues they know will eventually get stuffed into committee.

Progressives in the House, on the other hand, probably have the most to gain by decentralizing power in Springfield. Currently, they have little leverage within their caucus to influence what is ultimately called. Dozens of progressive initiatives, some that should have broad appeal, were shelved this session. And lawmakers were never even allowed to debate HB 174 on the floor, even though it passed the House Education Committee last session.

One could imagine a different scenario in which the rules allowed for more legislative openness: committee chairs could call hearings, bills could be discharged if a super-majority of members vote to do so, bill sponsors could control who carries their legislation in the other chamber. In that system, a group of progressives could organize a caucus and whip other Democrats on votes they felt too crucial to ignore. They wouldn't have the financial resources leadership has available, but they wouldn't be relegated to the margins of their party, either. And if the current majorities hold, not every Democrat would need to break ranks on every vote.

The GOP would likely go along with these changes. In fact, conservative activists attempted this year (without success) to codify into law and the state constitution some of those very reforms. Currently, 48 Republicans hold office in the House. That means only 12 Dems would need to buck Madigan next January. "These rules aren't imposed by fiat," says Wheeler. "A majority of members just need to approve the resolution."

A Summer Deadline

Of course, it's harder said than done. Procedural reform is arcane. That's why progressive interest groups and the reform community have not done much work organizing and providing support to lawmakers around the issue. (Gov. Pat Quinn's reform commission actually recommended some changes to the House rules last year but those suggestions were drowned out by the debate over campaign finance reform.) The culture in Springfield established by House leadership decades ago is also pretty rigid. And few people dare to stand toe-to-toe with Speaker Madigan.

Even so, comprehensive rules reform is an issue that deserves to be discussed, at the very least. And soon. Once election season starts, you can rest assured that the Speaker will ramp up his campaign to serve as the caucus leader once more. And a vote for him is a vote for his rules.

*** It should be noted that Sen. John Cullerton (D-Chicago) enjoys many of the same procedural privileges as Madigan, but he's acted more openly than his counterpart since taking over as president, giving frequent hearings to bills he opposes.

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