State Government

Madigan: The man behind the mess

Illinois Speaker of the House Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, right, confers with Illinois Rep. Edward J. Acevedo, D-Chicago, left, while lawmakers argue pension legislation while on the House floor during session at the Illinois State Capitol Thursday, March 7, 2013, in Springfield, Ill. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)
Illinois Speaker of the House Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, right, confers with Illinois Rep. Edward J. Acevedo, D-Chicago, left, while lawmakers argue pension legislation while on the House floor during session at the Illinois State Capitol Thursday, March 7, 2013, in Springfield, Ill. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)

If Illinois passes any kind of budget as a result of the ongoing special session, it will be because Democratic House Speaker Mike Madigan allowed it to happen.

In his 33 years so far as speaker – he will set a national record when he finishes out his 17th term with the gavel in 2018 – Madigan has accumulated almost unchecked power. He determines what bills move on for a vote, and which do not. And as the longtime chairman of the state Democratic Party, he also has a big say in who gets elected from the party.

Bruce Rauner is the sixth governor to work with Madigan as speaker, and the sixth to learn that Madigan has just as much of a hold of the reins as the state’s chief executive. If Madigan doesn’t want something to become law, it will not.

While there is plenty of bipartisan blame to go around regarding the fact that Illinois could face an unprecedented three years without a budget, as well as the deep fiscal mess the state is in, understanding why is impossible without understanding the power that Madigan holds.

‘A tremendous gift for him’

Madigan is hardly the “puppet master” that Republicans and his detractors make him out to be, said Jak Tichenor, acting director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. Tichenor, who has covered Springfield for public media since 1991, has interviewed Madigan numerous times.

“It’s fun for the editorial writers to oversimplify things when it comes to explaining how Magidan works … but I think it’s more complicated than that,” Tichenor said.

But how Madigan, first elected to the Illinois House in 1970 to represent a southwestern Chicago district, exploited luck and a well-intentioned but misguided reform to land in the speaker’s seat is nothing short of political genius.

He was picked as the deciding man to give the Democratic Party control of redrawing legislative boundaries after a bipartisan eight-member House panel was deadlocked after the 1980 U.S. Census. The map he drew saved a number of Democratic seats that otherwise would have been lost because of Chicago losing population.

At the same time, voters gave Madigan and his party a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity in 1980 by amending the Illinois Constitution to slash the size of the House from 177 to 118 members and ending the practice of electing three members from each district through cumulative voting. Forty-three of the 59 seats eliminated were held by the GOP.

Illinois Democrats won the House in a rout in the subsequent 1982 election, and Madigan in January was elected speaker. Except for two years after the Republican Revolution of 1994, Madigan has held it ever since.

“That put him in the driver’s seat of state politics for the next [three] decades. It was a tremendous gift for him to be in that position,” Tichenor said. “You have to remember that he comes out of the old [Richard J.] Daley Machine – he goes back all the way to the Daley organization, where you work hard for your political mentors, you reward people on the way up, and loyalty is expected.”

Control over process

and members

More important than how Madigan attained power is how he uses it. To be blunt, no legislation can get approval without his blessing.

To Republican lawmakers such as Bob Pritchard of Hinckley, rule changes over the years have given Madigan almost complete control over the legislative process.

“If a member wants to come down here and accomplish anything, they have to work with the speaker,” Pritchard said. “If they want to remain in office, they have to cooperate with the speaker.”

However, Republicans have their own party to thank for many of the rules that Madigan now wields so effectively.

Bills that are filed in the House are first assigned to its Rules Committee, where they either are advanced to the relevant committees or they sit until they die with the end of session. Madigan controls the Rules Committee.

House rules give Madigan the power to appoint the Democratic majority members to the committee, which is chaired by House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie of Chicago, a longtime Madigan ally. If Madigan doesn’t like a particular bill, it doesn’t advance. He has used this ability to block repeated attempts by lawmakers over the years to advance constitutional amendments to enact term limits and reform the way lawmakers redraw districts after each U.S. Census – both of which enjoy broad support from voters, polling data shows.

Should a bill clear committee and head to a House vote, it is Madigan who decides when that bill is called – his fellow lawmakers could have days or minutes to consider a bill before being asked to cast a vote.

Madigan’s influence doesn’t end once a bill is released to any of the 49 legislative committees of the House. He has the power to help and shield members who play ball, and punish those who don’t.

Each committee has a chairman – a post that comes with a $10,000 stipend on top of a House lawmaker’s $67,836 base salary, which also pads that particular lawmaker’s pension from the General Assembly Retirement System. Each chairperson serves at the pleasure of the speaker, who can remove them at any time, for any reason.

Madigan also can change rank-and-file committee members at will. A Democratic lawmaker who is vulnerable in an upcoming election can be substituted for one in a “safe” district when controversial or unpopular legislation arises.

But while Madigan has been adept at growing and holding power, it’s Republicans who wrote the rules.

After Republicans won control of the state Senate in the 1992 election, Republican Senate President James “Pate” Philip sought to centralize power in part to marginalize Madigan, who chose to adopt some of them as well. Philip, for starters, created the rule limiting how bills can be released from the Rules Committee.

When the GOP gained control of the House for two years after the 1994 election, new Republican Speaker Lee Daniels didn’t loosen the rules – he adopted the Senate’s rules almost word for word. It was a gift that Madigan happily accepted when he won back the speakership two years later.

But Madigan’s leverage isn’t limited to the House rules. Since 1998, Madigan has been chairman of the Democratic Party of Illinois, which gives him significant say in which party candidates get financial support, regardless of the office they are seeking, and which ones do not.

Two recent examples highlight that power.

Former Democratic state Rep. Kenneth Dunkin of Chicago broke with the party and sided with Rauner when it came to overriding his vetoes of social service and union negotiation bills. A Madigan-backed opponent defeated Dunkin in the March primary. 

State Rep. Scott Drury, D-Highwood, has not only gone against Madigan on a number of tax votes, but also voted “present” for speaker. Besides being the sole third-term Democrat not to get a committee chairmanship this term, he was removed from the House Judiciary-Criminal Committee where he had been vice chairman – he is a former assistant U.S. attorney and an adjunct law professor. A Democratic challenger rose to run against Drury in the March primary, but Drury has decided instead to run for governor.

Hand in pension problems

While the state’s budget mess is bipartisan in origin, with both Republicans and Democrats making the bad decisions that led us to the present situation, having near absolute power over what becomes law means that Madigan, like the governors he has worked with, shoulders blame.

The state’s out-of-control pension liability is a good example. Pension legislation Madigan allowed to pass in past years is causing big headaches today. While state lawmakers have spent the past century shorting the pension system, decisions made with Madigan as speaker have significantly exacerbated the problem.

In 1989, he backed a law changing the 3 percent annual increase that state pensioners receive from simple to compound interest – at 3 percent compound interest, a retiree’s pension doubles in 24 years. Republican Gov. James Thompson signed that bill, along with others that sweetened Thompson’s pension as well as those of other lawmakers.

Five years later, with the pension system deteriorating, Madigan backed a pension reform bill to help the re-election of incumbent Republican Gov. Jim Edgar, whose Democratic opponent, Dawn Clark Netsch, intended to make the state’s pension problems a campaign issue. Madigan supported Netsch’s opponent in the primary.

The plan, which came to be known as the “Edgar Ramp,” set a 50-year goal of having the pensions 90 percent funded by 2045. It shorted the systems by keeping the state’s contribution artificially low for 15 years before ramping payments up.

Madigan advanced a plan under Republican Gov. George Ryan that allowed thousands of state employees to retire early in hopes of easing pressure on the pension systems – it didn’t work. A subsequent bill signed by Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich aimed at curbing pension abuses in school districts allowed the state to skip a number of its pension payments altogether.

The state’s unfunded pension liability stood at $15 billion in 1994 when Edgar and others were calling it a crisis. It now stands at $130 billion, and 25 percent of the entire state general fund budget goes to paying the pensions and benefits of retired state employees.

The pension mess is hardly the sole reason for the state’s fiscal woes. Despite a requirement in the Illinois Constitution that the budget be balanced, state lawmakers under Madigan’s leadership have not passed a balanced budget since 2001, according to Illinois Comptroller’s Office records. Many budgets were “balanced” by shifting of funds and pushing off unpaid bills into the next year.

Budgets, like any other legislation, won’t advance without Madigan’s approval, and he and Rauner have shown few if any signs of finding common ground.

Rauner, who was elected in 2014 on a platform of reversing Illinois’ dismal fortunes, says he won’t sign a budget that includes tax increases without what he says are needed pro-taxpayer and pro-business reforms. Madigan and a majority of House Democrats call many of his proposed reforms hurtful to working- and middle-class Illinoisans.

As a show of the power Madigan commands, Rauner has failed to pass even one part of the “Turnaround Agenda” that got him elected and carried 101 of the state’s 102 counties.

Although Madigan wields a lot of power, he supervises a Democratic majority that is politically diverse – Chicago lawmakers and downstate ones often have significantly different interests. Although Democrats had a supermajority for the first two years of Rauner’s term, Madigan rarely could marshal the votes to override Rauner’s vetoes.

With that supermajority lost after the 2016 election, a budget deal will require several Republican votes to reach the three-fifths majority now needed to pass.

The budget mess is costing both leaders dearly in public perception. A March poll by the Paul Simon Institute put Madigan’s disapproval rating at 61 percent, and Rauner’s at 55 percent. But unlike Rauner, the public doesn’t elect the speaker, whose re-election is all but guaranteed his 22nd District on Chicago’s southwest side.

Next term a record

In January 2019, two months after voters elect the entire Illinois House, half of the Illinois Senate, and the governor and other statewide offices, House lawmakers will convene to elect a speaker to another two-year term.

Barring the unforeseen, Madigan by then will have clinched the distinction of being the longest-serving House speaker in modern U.S. history by the records of the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Democrats hold a 67-51 majority in the state House, and it is likely to remain in Democratic hands after the ‘18 election. That Democratic majority will be asked to vote for Madigan as Speaker if he chooses to run again. They will almost certainly comply – both by electing Madigan and by approving his House rules.

Tichenor called Madigan “one of the most gifted politicians I’ve ever met,” and credits his political longevity to a mix of discipline, intellect and appreciation of history.

“He’s just the one who’s outlasted everyone else – the others have passed from the scene,” Tichenor said. “I think that’s why he becomes the target of such criticism, because he’s been there so long.”

State Rep. David McSweeney, R-Barrington Hills, is not resigned to another session of Democratic majority and another term for Madigan as speaker.

He said Republicans have a path to picking up nine seats and the majority after the next election. However, McSweeney said his party is throwing away that chance by proposing tax increases, earmarks and special deals during the ongoing budget negotiations.

“The surest way to make sure we have a Democratic majority for a long time to come,” McSweeney said,” is for us to abandon our principles.”

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