Nobody ever really knows what’s going through Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan’s head except for Madigan himself. So the actual purpose of two highly choreographed gun control and pension reform debates last week ordered up by Madigan weren’t completely clear to anyone.
That’s by design, of course. Madigan prefers to keep people in the dark until he’s ready to make his final move.
But I did hear one theory from a Democrat last week that made quite a bit of sense, at least for a while.
Last Tuesday’s hours-long debate on numerous aspects of concealed carry that ended with far more discombobulated confusion than a clear resolution may have been intended to inject some chaos into the equation and convince members that what’s needed is some real leadership forward. And that leadership, of course, would come from Madigan.
If nothing else, last Tuesday’s debate gave House members a good education about how far apart the two sides are on concealed carry.
In the most infamous example, Downstate Republican state Rep. Jim Sacia used a way-over-the-top analogy to explain to Chicagoans why their gun problem shouldn’t cause them to “blame the rest of us” by forcing everyone to disarm.
Sacia’s analogy, “You folks in Chicago want me to get castrated because your families are having too many kids,” enraged several Chicago-area legislators, but it did serve a purpose.
Thanks to Sacia, Chicagoans discovered the intensity and breadth of the divide. And it even helped that Sacia inadvertently confirmed all those liberal pop psychology theories about how, um, “overly enthusiastic” gun owners associate their weapons with their private parts and aren’t all that fond of poor people.
And liberal proponents of super-tight restrictions on concealed-carry holders made it shockingly clear to conservatives that some Chicagoans feel more in danger being around folks – like those very conservatives – who are vetted and licensed to carry concealed weapons in public venues than they are around dangerously violent criminals.
The only way to bridge this huge divide is through strong leadership from above – or at least that’s the theory.
But just two days after that long day of gun debates, the wheels seemed to fall off.
If anybody else’s proposal had been shot down in the House 66-1, with only the sponsor voting for it and all Republicans taking a pass because it was so “out there,” the ridicule would have been piled high on whoever came up with such a silly idea.
And if that same sponsor saw all of his other proposals die a similar fate on the same day, with one getting just two votes, another getting three and another getting five, well, the sponsor probably would have been considered a rank amateur.
But that’s exactly what happened last Thursday to Speaker Madigan, the supposed master of three-dimensional political chess.
Madigan ran four pension reform amendments that were so radioactively harsh nobody wanted to go near them. Instead of prompting a debate, few rose to speak.
Instead of putting the Republicans on the spot, they refused to cast any votes at all. Instead of getting members to think about the awesome problem, he gave them an easy out via a cartoonish charade. Instead of convincing them that his leadership was needed, they rejected his ideas out of hand.
And the Speaker’s heavy-handed, top-down management undoubtedly will continue. Madigan’s spokesman told reporters last week that a request by state Rep. Jack Franks, D-Marengo, for a “Committee of the Whole” to take testimony and openly debate pension reform was “the craziest idea,” because the House already has held numerous committee hearings only to see the Republicans withdraw bills and duck votes.
Back in the day, before former House Speaker Lee Daniels changed the rules, members could file amendments that went straight to the floor without first having to be approved by a committee. The process was sometimes abused, but members had infinitely more input into issues than they do now. Was state government somehow worse back then? Hardly.
So why not let ‘em have their say? It probably won’t work, either. Even back in the “good old days,” big, important and complicated issues were almost always worked out behind closed doors. But if and when a real debate with truly open rules on amendments fails, then members will come running back to Daddy for instructions as they always do. And in the unlikely prospect that it works, then maybe Madigan could learn something as well.
• Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and CapitolFax.com.