It’s easy to criticize longevity in politics. “Career politician” is a pejorative for a reason. But there’s a big difference between persistent public service and a political machine.
Unfortunately, the latter has won out in the Illinois General Assembly.
Senate President John Cullerton and House Speaker Mike Madigan have controlled their chambers for about 10 and 35 years, respectively. No other state has a duo who comes close to their total leadership tenure. The two Chicagoans have been members of the General Assembly for a combined 88 years.
So, perhaps it’s understandable that Illinoisans complain about longstanding “Democrat rule” in the state Legislature. But the real problem might be more about personnel than partisanship.
A mere six men have served as Illinois speaker of the House or Senate president since 1983, four Democrats and two Republicans. That means fresh ideas have been in woefully short supply, with political priorities focused on preserving power rather than balancing a given budget, for example.
It would be tough to argue calcified leadership has done the state any favors. A look at Illinois’ social services, finances, economic growth and high total tax burden is depressing. Still, Senate Democrats behind closed doors this week pledged their vote for Cullerton for president in 2019, and GOP members reaffirmed support for their minority leaders. Madigan likely will round up House Democrats the week after Thanksgiving to ask for the same.
Why has this structure persisted?
For one, those leadership posts have become far too powerful.
In 1993, Republicans captured the Illinois Senate for the first time in 18 years. Partially to build a firewall against the Madigan-controlled House, they pioneered a few techniques to consolidate control in the hands of Senate President James “Pate” Philip. One was to overly empower the Rules Committee to the point where it could reliably suffocate pesky bills at the direction of leadership, no matter how popular they were.
Some of those rules then bled into the House, where Madigan has been happy to exploit and refine them in the more than 20 years since. He has remained the Teflon Don, of Springfield, for so many years in part because of his destruction of democracy in what now only could tenuously be called a legislative chamber.
Through the House rules, Madigan controls a preposterous number of lucrative committee chairmanships, who votes in various committees, when a bill will be called for a vote, and what bills even make it to a vote in the first place.
Gov.-elect J.B. Pritzker made a call on the campaign trail for term limits for legislative leaders. Unlike reforming the legislative rules, that doesn’t necessarily solve the power problem. But it’s something.
Will Pritzker actually push for such a measure with Madigan in office? Not if he wants any of his legislative agenda to reach the governor’s desk. Therein lies the problem.
Notably, U.S. congressman and longtime Madigan ally Dan Lipinski said he would not back Nancy Pelosi for speaker of the House until she agrees to changes in the legislative rules to empower rank-and-file lawmakers.
Every House Democrat in Springfield should be screaming for the same.