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Column

Berg: All I want for Christmas is a new speaker

The holidays are a time to reflect, give thanks and prepare for the unbounded, nameless future ahead.

For Illinois politicians, that should look something like this:

• Reflect on the perverse power dynamics of the Statehouse.

• Give thanks for your hardworking constituents.

• Steel yourself for a future without the Grinch of Springfield: House Speaker Mike Madigan. Members of the House will vote for speaker on Jan. 11. If Democrats choose Madigan for the 17th time, he will be crowned the longest-serving House speaker in U.S. history.

This longevity has not yielded a jolly, old elf.  Rather, it has left Illinoisans with a legislative body controlled by the will of a single man. Forthcoming research from the Illinois Policy Institute reveals Madigan has more in common with a Latin American caudillo, a despotic strongman, than he does with any legislative leader in this country. Like the green creature looking down upon Whoville, Madigan plays by his own rules. No other state in the country grants so much power to one legislative leader. There are four pillars of Madigan’s cartoonish power in the House, all dictated by the legislative rules.

First, Madigan controls what bills make it to a vote. The speaker controls the Rules Committee, which is supposed to serve as a traffic cop, directing each bill to the appropriate committee for a proper hearing. It instead serves as a straightjacket for reforms Madigan loathes. This is why Illinoisans don’t hear about their lawmaker taking a substantive vote on term limits, a property tax freeze or mapmaking reform.

Second, Madigan appoints all 49 committee chairs and the $10,000 stipends that come with them. This tucks dozens of representatives neatly into Madigan’s pocket, oftentimes for little work. Nine of those committees had fewer than five meetings in 2015. Two didn’t meet at all: Intermodal Infrastructure and International Trade and Commerce.

Third, Madigan controls who votes in those committees. In addition to the leadership bonus, committee chairs don’t even have to take tough votes that could haunt them in their districts. Madigan simply swaps out committee members at will, often replacing them with a Democrat holding a safe seat who votes Madigan’s way.

Fourth, Madigan controls when a bill is called for a vote.

There is no strict calendar showing when bills will be called for a vote in Illinois. Only Madigan knows.

There’s a lot at stake in the upcoming vote for speaker. But House Democrats aren’t being honest about their options.

Most frame the vote as Madigan against a Republican. But what if a brave Democrat emerged to challenge the speaker? One who could, at the very least, change the legislative rules to allow for healthy decision-making in the House?

If the House Republicans decide to reach across the aisle and vote for a Democrat speaker replacement, all it would take is nine brave Democrats to end Madigan’s tenure as speaker.

As things stand, deliberative democracy is dead in Illinois. Madigan killed it. But a Christmas miracle on Jan. 11 could bring it back to life.

• Austin Berg is a writer for the Illinois Policy Institute. He wrote this column for the Illinois News Network, a project of the Institute. Austin can be reached at aberg@illinoispolicy.org.

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