A New Year’s wish: Better government in Illinois

Is it time for systemic rules changes to create a more open, representative government? Yes. Here are a few suggestions for lawmakers to consider.

Here’s hoping our state lawmakers are spending some holiday time reflecting and resolving. This is a time when state lawmakers, in particular, could be reflecting on how they and their colleagues have responded to a brutal pandemic and systemic racism. Perhaps they’ve determined whether and how they might want to change things in the new year.

In Illinois, all attention centers on the House, of course, and whether longest-serving-in-the-nation Speaker Michael Madigan will gain another term. No matter who holds the title of Illinois House speaker, much of the power lies in the rules of operation that will be passed early in the year in both the House and the Senate.

Whether the people in the seats of power change is one thing. Serious consideration also should be given to the rules that give the speaker and Senate president the power to dictate whether they convene, who chairs committees and whether, when and how ideas are considered, debated and voted on.

The inconvenient truth is that, for many years, in both the House and Senate, the chamber leaders have had so much power that what does or doesn’t happen within those corridors is dictated almost completely by them.

Is it time for systemic rules changes to create a more open, representative government? Yes. Here are a few suggestions for lawmakers to consider.

The speaker and president control the calendar and, in 2020, since the pandemic shutdown in mid-March, state lawmakers have held some virtual hearings and meetings, but they met in full only to vote on emergency legislation chosen by the majority leaders for a handful of days in May. Lawmakers should reconsider their decision to vote only when they physically gather in Springfield. They should allow virtual committee hearings, debates and votes in both chambers so that state government no longer is held captive. More than two dozen other state legislatures are working this way. The operations under the Illinois dome are so antiquated that a lawmaker cannot even add her or his name as a sponsor of legislation without filling out a piece of paper and physically handing it to a staff member in Springfield.

The House Rules Committee is where ideas go to live or die. Many die. Change this committee to operate more like the Senate Assignments Committee, which does assign legislation to committees. There’s still no guarantee all legislation gets a hearing, but at least it all does get distributed to committee chairs for consideration.

Any legislation that has the support of a significant number of lawmakers should be heard, debated and voted on, shouldn’t it?

In 2019, the Fair Maps Amendment had the overwhelming support of 39 out of the 59 members of the Illinois Senate, yet it never got a hearing or a vote. That’s not representative democracy.

Eight legislative chambers nationwide require leadership approval for a discharge motion to succeed, and the Illinois House is one of them. The House Rules Committee has sole discretion over whether proposals can be discharged to the floor or re-referred to committee after the deadlines have passed for committees to have acted on them. Illinois lawmakers should change that. Consider reducing the number of signatures required for discharge petitions from a supermajority of each caucus to a majority, or lower, of each chamber as a whole. Consider a requirement that all bills successfully passed through necessary committees are added to legislative calendars for votes and floor debates. Isn’t this what we want our elected officials doing? Legislating, debating and voting more?

The Illinois Senate has passed rules that limit to five the number of terms for a president. House lawmakers might want to consider the same.

The rule that simply requires a lawmaker to sign their name to a document to help a bill get a hearing can serve to intimidate them. The speaker and president effectively control what the districts look like and, therefore, lawmakers’ re-election chances. They control committee assignments, legislative calendars, campaign workers and the disbursement of campaign funds. They have many ways of punishing rank-and-file lawmakers who dare to defy them.

We all know from world history what happens when one or two people write the rules that give them absolute power. Here’s to more of our Illinois public officials reflecting on that and resolving soon to improve their key operating rules.

This column originally appeared in Crain’s Chicago Business.