Life after Speaker Madigan

When the alpha dog leaves the House: Life after Speaker Madigan

House Speaker Michael Madigan and his defenders often bristle at the suggestion that he is responsible for the condition of Illinois. They dispute the notion thatMadigan is the superpower of state government.

With the election season squarely upon us, Madigan’s members who are running for re-election tiptoe on slabs of shifting ice. They don’t want to acknowledge his power. They don’t want to offend him. They don’t want to defend him. They want to appear independent.

They can’t have it all ways.

Besides, his superpowers are in writing.

To fully grasp the influence of one person over state government, look no further than the 129 pages of House rules — the day-to-day rules that govern how and when bills get introduced and passed.

I’ll sum it up for you: Everything is up to the speaker.

Over the years, the House rules have been tweaked and massaged to accommodate his top-down approach toward governing. The House rules are now Madigan’s personal handbook on how to control the process.

Every bill, including spending and borrowing legislation, goes straight to Madigan’s Rules Committee. It’s nearly impossible to discharge a bill unless he agrees. If a bill gets assigned to a committee, it’s a committee Madigan has chosen. He picks the majority of members, committee chairmen and vice chairmen. And he’ll often swap out committee members if he wants to manipulate an outcome. He also approves if and when committees should meet.

“Subject to approval by the Speaker” is a phrase sprinkled throughout the rules book, along with accommodations for the speaker to suspend the rules or change the order of business at virtually any time. There’s little opportunity, if any, for members of the minority party to fight back with bills of their own.

New additions to House rules include a provision allowing the House to rebuke gubernatorial executive orders. Gee, I wonder where that came from.

The Senate’s rules are half as long, and Senate President John Cullerton’s leadership style is to collaborate more with his members anyway.

So how much is Madigan to blame for the state’s dismal condition? Based on House rules alone, a lot. Nothing gets to the governor’s desk in this state without his imprint. Nothing.

If the speakership changed hands, rewriting House rules would be one of the first orders of business. It happened in 2002 when Republicans revolted against their leader, Lee Daniels, and it would most assuredly be part of the process if Democrats did the same. Life after Madigan would be more inclusive.

Of course, Madigan has no intention of leaving — at least not until the next gubernatorial election, when his daughter, Attorney General Lisa Madigan, might jump in the race. She said in 2013 she would not run for governor unless her father retired from office. The only other avenue for a post-Madigan General Assembly would be if he loses his House race in the 22nd District. He has a real opponent this time, Jason Gonzales.

Madigan is drenched in power and his members tolerate it, even to their own detriment. The stringent House rules have allowed Madigan to block popular, progressive legislation that would qualify as “core Democratic principles,” the phrase he often cites as justification for blocking Gov. Bruce Rauner’s agenda. Madigan has ignored legislation to raise the minimum wage, pass a progressive income tax, institute term limits, reform the redistricting process, allow for an elected school board in Chicago and end the city’s red-light camera program.

He recently announced a task force to explore the unjust school funding formula after years of downplaying that problem, too. Madigan once told me he stopped reading Phil Kadner’s column in the Daily Southtown because Kadner wrote repeatedly about the unfairness of the formula. More recently, Madigan couldn’t be bothered to appoint House members to a school funding task force that, under Sen. Andy Manar, D-Bunker Hill, did yeoman’s work trying to recalibrate the $30 billion spent on public schools annually.

Now, suddenly, the speaker is interested in school funding.

Democratic lawmakers and Springfield insiders try to spread the blame for the state’s condition. Complacent Republicans are to blame. The Great Recession that ended in June 2009 is to blame. Rauner is to blame. It’s not the longtime speaker’s fault, they say.

But that’s malarkey. It’s in writing.

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