Progress Illinois looks at the power struggle between the Chicago City Council and the mayor.
This past May, for the first time in two decades and just the fifth time in five and half, someone not named Richard Daley was sworn in as mayor of Chicago. Over in the city council, 18 of the 50 aldermen taking their seats were new faces from four years ago. In the wake of this unprecedented turnover, pundits and politicians hailed the dawning of a new era in relations between the council and the mayor. For years, Chicago’s legislative body had earned its reputation as a rubber stamp, approving the former mayor Daley’s policy proposals with unanimous or near-unanimous support. Here at last was a chance to shift the balance of power back toward the council.
“I think you are going to see a lot of
aldermen who are going to drive public policy,” Ameya Pawar, the 47th
Ward’s newly-elected 31 year-old alderman, told the Tribune at the time. “I think that’s the spirit of cooperation [new mayor Rahm] Emanuel is referring to.”
When it comes to driving city policy, however, 2011 has shown that Pawar and his aldermanic colleagues remain firmly in the passenger’s seat. Since taking office, Mayor Rahm Emanuel has enjoyed the same remarkable success in the city council that his predecessor had, culminating in the 50-0 vote to pass his proposed budget last month. And while Emanuel has received praise from aldermen for being more open to conversation and compromise, the reality is that the mayor has had to bend very little to achieve his policy preferences. Going into the new year, the new mayor and new council seem to have cemented their same old seal-of-approval relationship.
There is a long list of reasons why Chicago’s mayor wields such authority over the city’s aldermen. At or near the top of that list is money. It takes financial capital to win a seat on the city council. Emanuel, with his stable of heavyweight donors and willingness to spend on aldermanic campaigns, has proven himself to be a person worth having on your side of the fight. And while the Chicago machine is not what it used to be, there are still other ways for the mayor’s office to use its political leverage to influence aldermen.
Yet the mayor’s power over the city council is not just financial or political; it is also institutional. Chicago’s government structure and policy-making processes are constituted in such a way as to emphasize mayoral authority and embolden mayoral action. Indeed, the existing institutional order makes it difficult for even the most independent aldermen to oppose the mayor on major policy initiatives.
Consider the budget process. According to the city government’s website, “The Office of Budget and Management (OBM) prepares and implements the City of Chicago’s annual budget.” The OBM is overseen by Budget Director Alexandra Holt, who “works with the mayor and the administration to develop a final budget proposal,” according to the website. Ms. Holt, who was appointed by Mayor Emanuel, also serves on the mayor’s Council on Budget, Business Development, and Economic Issues, which advises the mayor’s office on how to cut spending and streamline the budget. In addition to the Council and the OBM, the mayor can also request advice from policy experts in the departments of Finance and Revenue, who may be asked to create models identifying how much certain policies will cost or save the city.
The mayor, then, has at his disposal a vast pool of experience and expertise on which to draw when creating his annual budget. These directors and department heads are appointed by Mayor Emanuel, and they report to him. They work with the mayor to shape his final budget proposal, and they testify at the city council’s budget hearings to explain why his proposal should be approved.
The city council, for its part, is responsible for voting on the mayor’s budget. As the municipal legislative body, its function is to oversee appropriations and ensure that the city is spending wisely and efficiently. Each individual alderman has to decide whether or not to approve the mayor’s proposal. In order to make that decision, the city council holds hearings on the budget, in which it questions experts and government officials over any budgetary concerns. Who speaks before the council at these hearings? The mayor, of course, as well as the OBM’s Budget Director, and the city department heads with whom the mayor has been collaborating throughout the budget process.
Crucially, however, the city council does not have access to its own independent budget department or agency. There are no government officials tasked with running economic models for individual aldermen. The council has no way to verify if the mayor’s figures add up.
For an example of what such an agency might look like, Chicago need look no further than the federal government. President Obama has his own Office of Management and Budget, filled with economists and policy analysts whose “core mission” is “to serve the President of the United States in implementing his vision” through the budget. Obama also relies on experts in the U.S. Treasury and other departments to help model economic outcomes. As in Chicago, the heads of these departments are frequently called to testify in budget hearings, where they defend the president’s proposal before the legislature.
Congress members, however, do not have to rely on the president and his advisers for their economic analysis. The federal legislature has its own cohort of experts: the employees of the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). The CBO is a non-partisan, independent government agency responsible for providing Congress with objective economic information. One of the agency’s primary responsibilities is to “re-estimate” the president’s budget proposals, which “permits the Congress to compare the President's spending or revenue proposals to other proposals using a consistent set of economic and technical assumptions.” CBO’s director is appointed, not by the president, but by House and Senate leadership. In this way, the CBO empowers Congress members to accurately and critically assess the executive branch’s proposals, arming them with information that can be used to shape a substantive policy debate. (Of course, substantive debate is infrequently the end result; but Congress at least has the capability to initiate it).
Since Chicago’s city council lacks any institutional resources to critically assess the mayor’s budget, aldermen must rely instead on outside assessments from non-government entities. These organizations offer the advantages of being independent and non-partisan; frequently, they provide useful critiques of the mayor’s proposals. Yet non-partisan does not mean unbiased. The Civic Federation, for example, is comprised of “business and professional leaders” with their own agenda and interests. The input of these organizations, while potentially productive, does not counterbalance the significant institutional advantages afforded to the mayor in Chicago’s budgetary process.
Given the existing government structure, how can Chicagoans expect their aldermen to offer substantive criticism of the mayor’s proposals? The budget is a lengthy document full of complex economic analysis. It is predicated on various financial models that estimate future revenue and costs. A local public servant -- even one who is intelligent, competent, and critical-minded -- has little hope of parsing through such figures without expert advice. The mayor has access to such advice. The city council has access to the mayor.
For this reason, Mayor Emanuel’s authority over the council is likely to continue into the new year and beyond. Speaking during the budget hearings, 30th Ward alderman Ariel Reboyras unwittingly laid to rest Alderman Pawar’s hope for a renewed aldermanic drive in the policy arena. “Mr. Emanuel,” said Reboyras, addressing the mayor, “as our leader, I will trust your judgment.” These words make it seem as though placing trust in Emanuel was a decision. In reality, alderman frequently have little choice.