New Year's wish: A New House speaker in Illinois

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. And those rules serve to pummel those below him. 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. A new speaker could decide to change these rules and bring power back to the other 117 state representatives.

For this reason alone, rumors of a Democrat challenger to Madigan for the speakership are tidings of comfort and joy.

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.

More than 40 states don’t require bills to pass through a rules committee at all. Not here. In Illinois, the only way to get a bill out of Madigan’s Rules Committee without his consent is to have a supermajority of House members become sponsors of the bill. This is virtually impossible.

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. Vote against Madigan’s wishes on an important piece of legislation – or the speakership – and he strips the chairmanship with a flick of his wrist.

Illinois is one of only nine states that pay bonuses to the chairs of every standing legislative committee. 

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.

Only 29 of the 99 legislative chambers in the U.S. explicitly allow this practice. The Illinois House is one of them. Legislative committees there made more than 600 substitutions in 2016.

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. Catching lawmakers flat-footed with a complex piece of legislation is commonplace, and the resulting lack of substantive debate suits Madigan just fine. Knowledge is power.

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

Loading more

Digital Access

Digital Access
Access from all your digital devices and receive breaking news and updates from around the area.

Home Delivery

Home Delivery
Local news, prep sports, Chicago sports, local and regional entertainment, business, home and lifestyle, food, classified and more! News you use every day! Daily, weekend and Sunday packages.

Text Alerts

Text Alerts
Stay connected to us wherever you are! Get breaking news updates along with other area information sent to you as a text message to your wireless device.

Email Newsletters

Email Newsletters
We'll deliver news & updates to your inbox. Plan your weekend and catch up on the news with our newsletters.